Steve Rose

March 8, 2014

Kansas school funding decision spares Gov. Sam Brownback

Depending on your point of view, either the Kansas Supreme Court brought sanity to the issue with its decision that cuts in education funding since 2010 led to an unconstitutionally imbalanced playing field between rich and poor schools, or it dodged the issue. Either way, the question of the adequacy of funding Kansas schools has hit the reset button.

The clear winner in the Kansas Supreme Court decision issued Friday is Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback, and to a lesser extent, the Kansas Legislature.

Depending on your point of view, either the high court brought sanity to the issue or it dodged the issue.

Either way, the question of the adequacy of funding Kansas schools has hit the reset button. The question of whether the state is underfunding schools to the tune of several hundred million dollars has been sent back to a lower court where, according to experts, it will take as long as two years to be resolved.

Brownback’s biggest nightmare, as he goes into a re-election campaign for a November election, must have been a decision by the Supreme Court for the state to come up with hundreds of millions of dollars and then having a Republican-dominated legislature defy that order. Defying the high court over schools is not the kind of platform a governor would want to run on, and would have been a huge bonus to his likely opponent, Democrat Paul Davis.

Likewise, Republican legislators seeking re-election must be breathing a sigh of relief, not having this albatross hanging over them in their campaigns.

Davis could have argued that the governor has no concern for schools and no concern for the rule of law.

Davis can still argue that Brownback does not care about public schools, and that the state is underfunding schools, but he will not have the Kansas Supreme Court at his back to give the argument the same potency.

Some early reports have said school finance will now consume the rest of the legislative session. That, according to attorneys and political leaders I have talked to, is not the case.

“School finance is a dead issue, not only in this session, but probably until 2016,” said former state Sen. John Vratil, who is an expert on school finance and is also an attorney.

There is one exception, Vratil notes, which the current Legislature must address.

A time bomb in the Supreme Court’s findings is buried in the back of the 110-page document. It is complicated, but the bottom line is, if the Legislature does not fix the “school equity” issue, school districts stand to lose as much as 25 percent of their operating budgets from the Local Option Budget.

“That would be devastating to a school’s budget,” Vratil said.

As far as adequacy is concerned, another expert on school finance and a Republican leader in Kansas, as well as an attorney who asked that his name not be used, said he was “very pleased” with the decision to send it back to a lower court. In fact, this is what he predicted before the Supreme Court issued its finding.

“The court’s opinion was a note of sanity.” He said the increases in state aid asked for were “preposterous.”

Whatever your opinion, it does leave school districts in limbo. That’s for certain.

But there is one saving grace, and it is a big one.

Kansans thankfully have been spared the tragedy of a constitutional crisis.

The Supreme Court has bought us some time to come up with a compromise solution that the Legislature and those who were rallying around the lawsuit can live with.

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