I heard these words many times from former Kansas Gov. Robert F. Bennett: “It doesn’t matter what the school funding formula is if you don’t fund the formula.”
But those words were not spoken during Bennett’s term as governor from 1975 to 1979. Rather, he preached that gospel after he had returned home to his law practice in Prairie Village.
It was Bennett who, as a Republican state senator, crafted the state’s school finance formula in the 1960s, which functioned until the court threw it out in 1991. His formula preserved local control, but because it was not funded adequately, poor districts came up short. Bennett said if the Legislature had funded his formula adequately, it never would have been nullified by the courts.
Not much has changed over the ensuing decades. The courts have continually ruled that the Legislature has failed to pay for various formulas.
The Kansas Supreme Court declared in its “Montoy” decision of 2005 that the Legislature was not adequately funding the formula by hundreds of millions of dollars. And the high court added that if the Legislature failed to comply, it would shut down all public schools in Kansas.
The Legislature complied, at least for a while. Then school funding slipped back.
Fast forward to the present.
The Kansas Supreme Court has threatened again to shut down K-12 schools unless they are funded “equitably.” The court said the “temporary” block grant funding the Legislature approved in 2015 was unconstitutional and unfair to poorer districts. And the court has demanded a new formula be put in place by June 30.
Later on, the justices will rule on whether all schools are being funded not just equitably, but also “adequately,” which almost certainly will trigger another shutdown threat.
What will the Legislature do? It needs about $100 million and a new formula to please the court at this time.
One Republican legislator told me he does not think the Kansas Supreme Court would dare close schools over such a paltry sum of the total school budget. He said he doesn’t think the Legislature can or will come up with a new formula by the deadline.
If he is wrong, which I suspect he is, consider how that might play out.
Schools would not open. And this fall, every seat in the Legislature is up for election.
Who would the public blame for this monumental disruption? The Legislature, which the courts say is stingy with its school funding.
But it’s even more frightening that this is also a Legislature that could dare to blow off the highest court in the state.
If legislators believe the Supreme Court would not follow through and close schools, they are guilty of wishful thinking.
There is no way the Supreme Court would want to be viewed as toothless. Its integrity is on the line, even if this argument is over a tiny portion of the state’s school budget.
The Legislature and Gov. Sam Brownback can huff and puff. They can blame an “activist” court. They can threaten to change through a constitutional amendment the way justices are selected.
But in the end, lawmakers will comply, even if that comes after the high court actually calls their bluff and closes the schools.
Bennett would turn in his grave if he witnessed a Legislature balking — at least for now — over funding what the court has ordered.
Although school funding has been an ongoing issue, in Bennett’s time there was never, ever talk about ignoring the highest court in the state.
That much, unfortunately, has changed dramatically.
Steve Rose, longtime Johnson County columnist: firstname.lastname@example.org