The Kansas Legislature, governor or both will comply with the state Supreme Court’s ruling on school funding. But the outcome is likely to be ugly.
The court last month dropped the first of what is likely to be two shoes on the Legislature. The justices predictably declared the disparity between state funding for poor school districts and wealthier districts to be unconstitutional. The gap is in the tens of millions of dollars. A larger shoe likely will drop in 2017, declaring funding for all schools to be inadequate and unconstitutional. That remedy is likely to be in the hundreds of millions of dollars.
The Legislature will comply with the first ruling by June 30, under the threat by the court of closure of all schools if action is not taken. Or if no special session is called and lawmakers do not act, Gov. Sam Brownback will step in.
There will be a lot of teeth-gnashing and sharp attacks on the court. Some extremists already are calling for state government to ignore the court. That would be very risky. Every legislative district is up for election in August and November. What incumbent legislator — especially a conservative — would want to run a campaign with closed schools? The angry residents of Kansas would hold legislators to blame, not the court.
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Those waiting for the Legislature to raise taxes to generate more revenue for school funding are delusional. What is likely to happen? First, more cuts are coming, with a reallocation of those reduced expenditures going to schools.
The likely victims once again will be Medicaid, known as KanCare, and higher education. Both were slashed this past session.
There really are few options if the Legislature or governor is going to find tens of millions of dollars in cuts to reallocate to schools. K-12 education makes up half the state budget, and that’s off limits. The vast majority of the remainder of the budget are those other two items.
Medicaid, which provides health care to the poor, is not only a large pot of money to go after, but everyone knows poor people do not vote in big numbers.
As for higher education, it is an easy target. The incredible shrinking state funding to universities may be headed eventually to zero. In turn, tuition will rise again to make up some, but not all, of the cuts. In addition, higher-education expenses will again be reduced, very painfully. Those hurt most — in this case students — also do not vote in big numbers. And there are plenty of cynical Kansans who think students should pay their own way without any state help.
Cuts alone may not be enough, depending on the total dollars required to fund poor districts. This is when Johnson County residents need to start worrying.
At some point, there will be a major effort to redistribute school funding from wealthy districts to poor districts. That would mean sharp budget cuts to the major school districts in Johnson County.
A bullet was dodged in the last legislative session when lots of legislators wanted to enact a new formula that would plunder Johnson County schools. The mighty clout of Johnson County legislators in leadership positions was enough to keep the enemies at bay. Now, however, with a Supreme Court ruling that begs for that redistribution, schools in the county may be in grave danger.
The real mystery is what the Legislature would do if the Supreme Court next time orders hundreds of millions of dollars in increased funding for schools. Even draconian cuts would not be enough. To comply, look for legislators to be creative and clever in the methods they will use to increase revenue, such as closing loopholes and broadening the tax base. Whatever they do, it won’t be called a tax increase.
Steve Rose, longtime Johnson County columnist: firstname.lastname@example.org.