This is my 25th year covering school finance in Kansas since the landmark decision in 1992 when the Kansas Supreme Court threw out the long-time funding formula, declaring it inadequate, unequal and, therefore, unconstitutional.
The Legislature and governor then fixed it to the pleasure of the court, but proceeded soon after to ignore the court’s decision by reducing school funding.
The court has reaffirmed almost every two years since then — and even more often lately — that Kansas children are getting shortchanged. And in an unequal way, as well.
So, this recent unanimous ruling that current school funding is unconstitutional came as zero surprise to me, inasmuch as the Legislature has continued to underfund the classrooms since the peak of school funding in 2008. Although a recent attempt was made to raise funding levels, it was obvious this was not going to be enough to fly with the Supreme Court.
The high court used to say precisely how much additional funding was needed, but no more. The Supreme Court has offered no specific number. The justices are saying not enough goes to schools, and also that those dollars are not reaching the most at-risk children. But the court is deliberately ducking the question of how much funding would be constitutional.
Ironically, many legislators are complaining because there were no funding targets included in the ruling. It is fairly clear why. Recently, conservative legislators have accused the Supreme Court of overstepping its bounds by appropriating funds through court orders, thus denying the Legislature its role as the appropriator of funds. The court has virtually responded, “Fine. We won’t appropriate. We’ll just tell you funding is inadequate and unfair, and then you figure out what is the right amount to be constitutional.”
It is widely surmised what the justices will accept. The court harkens back to a decade ago when Kansas schools were funded more generously, and the court also pays attention to the arguments of the attorneys who brought the most recent lawsuit against the state.
The Supreme Court is probably seeking somewhere around $500 million a year more than has been contemplated by the Legislature. The court also has become far more obsessed with equality — or equity, as it is called. That is probably a result of continued under-funding across the state, which exacerbates inequity. This obsession is not good news for Johnson County schools in the long run because the court now focuses like a laser beam on every cent spent and makes certain that everyone gets exactly the same amount.
The ruling this time touched on a number of other issues. I have spent hours listening to key legislators and legal experts discuss the specifics and have concluded those details have little to do with the elephant in the room, namely, that the Legislature must find huge amounts of extra funds or slash non-school state expenses. Already, some leaders in the Legislature have declared there will be no new taxes, no matter what. Some have even suggested the court be ignored. Both notions are preposterous. Higher taxes are coming, and the court will prevail with its authority.
One key question is, where will the presumed governor, Jeff Colyer, stand on this explosive issue? With Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback’s early departure for an ambassadorship, Lt. Gov. Colyer is soon to be elevated to the top post.
As he campaigns for governor in the 2018 election, he is the only one in the large pack of GOP candidates who will have any official say in this controversy. He is in a real bind. If Colyer endorses higher taxes, the conservative Republicans will pulverize him in the August primary election. If Colyer tries massive cuts, he will go down in flames in the November election, should he win the primary. Or will Colyer try to stay out of the fray and let whatever is passed by the Legislature become law without his signature? That could appear cowardly.
Politics aside, it would be grand if the Legislature would meet its constitutional obligations to Kansas schools on an ongoing basis, without backpedaling. After 25 years of watching this perpetual agony up close, it would be a relief to see this legal marathon and uncertainty over school budgets come to an end, once and for all.