Here’s an unsolicited warning to the Kansas Supreme Court: If in the next few weeks, the justices vote to adapt or encourage anything like a $2 billion increase in state school funding, the taxpayers of Kansas could go crazy.
Statewide property taxes for education could triple. Other taxes could soar, as well. And that kind of radical tax increase could cause even moderate allies who are pro-public education to seek retribution by voting for a constitutional amendment that would strip the high court of its constitutional authority to monitor and protect school funding.
The Kansas Supreme Court justices, in their esteemed black robes, should almost always try to be oblivious to the whims of public opinion. But in this case, ignoring the public’s reaction to an unfathomable ruling would be to ignore taxpayers at grave peril.
A too-modest legislative proposal now before the court to increase annual school funding by $534 million will almost certainly be found to be inadequate. It is widely believed Kansas schools have been inadequately funded for too long. In addition, the state has allowed an intolerably large number of students to fall short of proficiency standards, creating a chasm between the have and have-not student populations. A majority of justices has already strongly hinted that the proposed $534 million increase is too little, too late. If a “real” fix is not put in place, the court can close schools until the Legislature and governor comply.
The nine appointed justices, whose terms can run almost forever, face only an occasional public vote to retain them or not. No Supreme Court justice in Kansas history has ever failed to be retained. That can be a double-edged sword. It gives the court great autonomy, but its decisions may at rare times stir up great anger among the populace.
The constitutional amendment I mentioned has been brewing in the Legislature, so far to no avail. But it could rear its ugly head, this time with traction. It could pass the Legislature and be taken to a public vote, where it might just pass.
The rare circumstance where public opinion must be taken into consideration by justices may be upon us. A recent shocking study, conducted on behalf of the Legislature by a professor from Texas, has recommended Kansas spend as much as $2 billion more, phased in over five years to fund its schools, with the lofty goal of raising graduation rates from 86 percent to 95 percent. That rate would put Kansas at the top of the nation in graduation rates. The study’s conclusion has become gospel for way too many, including possibly several justices on the court.
The price tag for such a monumental increase could result in both massive tax increases and/or massive cuts in every service the state provides. Those kind of radical disruptions to citizens are intolerable, even if gradually phased in over five years, as recommended. To implement those kind of tax increases, or to make draconian cuts, to fund schools at such an astronomical level could and probably would cause an unprecedented uproar.
The fringe idea to pass a constitutional amendment stripping the powers of the court to interpret the constitutionality of school spending could become mainstream overnight. Passing such an amendment would rob the state of a vital check and balance. Before it is too late, the usually insulated justices on the Kansas Supreme Court should not act so supreme. If the justices push too hard or go too far, they could push school funding in Kansas into the unbridled arms of the Legislature, where whims can reduce spending because public education is often a low priority.
There would be no court to protect schools from deep cuts. The Supreme Court should heed the warning now, before it is too late. The taxpayers could revolt if the price is too high. And that could lead to radical reactions, such as passage of an unthinkable constitutional amendment that few really want, especially the Supreme Court justices.