Conservative legislators in Kansas know if they framed a proposed constitutional amendment on school funding fairly, the answer from voters would be a resounding “yes.” Lawmakers would simply ask: Should the Kansas Supreme Court continue to have the authority to rule on legal questions about whether schools are adequately funded?
But they’re twisting things around, both in suggesting that public opinion is on their side and in playing politics with how a proposed constitutional amendment might be worded on the ballot.
Conservatives are grasping at several straws. One is that there will be a sizable number of moderate Republicans and Democrats in the Legislature who will vote for the amendment because they voted for the funding formula the court just struck down. That is dubious. Two, conservatives will urge legislators to vote — not on the merits of the amendment — but only to give the right to Kansas voters to determine the outcome themselves.
But the ultimate trickery, I suspect, will be their ballot question, which likely will ask only whether Kansans agree that the Supreme Court should be prohibited from closing schools.
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Remember that conservatives are desperately trying to avoid complying with the Supreme Court’s finding that schools in Kansas are inadequately and unfairly funded. The court has given the Legislature until April 30 to come up with a funding solution. If the Legislature fails to comply, the court has threatened to close schools this summer until the Legislature has funded schools “constitutionally.”
The ultimate hammer — closing schools — is what gives the Supreme Court the clout to make its ruling stick. Without that leverage, the Legislature could choose to ignore the court entirely, declaring it an overreach of power.
Article 6, Section 6 of the Kansas Constitution says, “The Legislature shall make suitable provision for the finance of the educational interests of the state.” The Supreme Court has been interpreting what is suitable.
Conservatives want to strip the court of that authority so that they can hold steady or even decrease public school funding.
But they’re desperate. And hence the parlor games.
The average voter may not realize that by prohibiting the closing of schools by the courts, they are basically handing over sole discretion to the Legislature on all school funding matters. In a low-turnout special election, such an amendment could pass.
If it did pass, there would be no safeguards if, for example, the Legislature decided on a whim one day to slash school funding in half. The court could scream and holler, but the Legislature could simply ignore the court and do whatever it pleased. This is particularly frightening because there are so many legislators who believe the state currently overspends on education. “Suitable” to them means bare-bones education. The constitution’s requirement would basically be nullified.
So be prepared for a special election in April. Although it would be tempting to vote to prohibit the courts from closing schools, that would be the end of much needed checks and balances on school funding in Kansas.