Some Kansas legislators seek to reduce the courts’ role in school funding

Just weeks after judges ordered Kansas to spend millions more on schools, the Legislature is crafting a plan to limit the courts’ role to decide education funding.

Senators introduced a proposed constitutional amendment this week intended to stop the courts from telling the Legislature how much to spend on education.

“We have a disagreement in the state over whether the judiciary has the final say on the appropriation of money for education or whether the Legislature has the final say,” said Senate Vice President Jeff King, an Independence Republican.

The amendment is spurred partly by lawmakers who have become increasingly frustrated with budget crises ignited by court decisions ordering more money poured into schools.

Likewise, some lawmakers suspect that the Legislature’s majority — conservative Republicans — wants to change the way Kansas picks appellate judges out of irritation over court rulings dictating spending.

“There are some in this building who believe if we threaten the courts with cutting their funding or changing the way they’re selected or stripping their power, there will be different kinds of decisions,” said House Minority Leader Paul Davis, a Lawrence Democrat.

To become law, the proposed constitutional amendment on school finance needs support from two-thirds of the Legislature and a public vote that could be held during the August 2014 primary or earlier.

“If this is on the ballot and voters pass it, it sends a clear message to the (Kansas) Supreme Court that the elected Legislature decides how much money is appropriated for everything in the budget, including education,” King said.

A new poll out this week by SurveyUSA on behalf of a conservative-leaning think tank seems to back King up.

Pollsters for the Kansas Policy Institute surveyed 500 adults and found 54 percent did not believe the courts should have the final say on how much tax money goes to schools.

Forty-four percent said the courts should have the final say. Two percent were unsure. The poll had a margin of error of plus or minus 4.5 percent.

King said the courts would not be cut out of all questions about school finance. He said taxpayers could still go to court on issues such as whether money is allocated equally.

Just two days before this year’s legislative session began, a three-judge panel in Topeka found that funding for schools didn’t pass constitutional muster. The court suggested a price tag that could approach $500 million more for the state.

The judges found that the state broke promises to increase funding under a state Supreme Court ruling from 2005.

They found that that since 2009, the Kansas Legislature — in concert with Govs. Mark Parkinson and Sam Brownback — cut school spending in violation of the constitutional requirement to provide “suitable” financing for education.

The judges said the state needs to bring annual state base aid to the legally required level of $4,492 per student, up from the current level of $3,838.

It settled on the $4,492 figure because it was a number the Legislature agreed to several years ago based on studies that analyzed the cost of providing an education.

The proposed constitutional amendment drew sharp criticism from Alan Rupe, the attorney representing a coalition of 54 school districts that brought the lawsuit.

“They don’t like how the game is going, so they want to change the referee,” Rupe said. “It’s simply another action in which they’re avoiding taking responsibility.”

But some lawmakers believe the courts have overstepped their authority in ordering the state to spend more money on schools.

“It is the prerogative of the court to say something is unconstitutional or is constitutional,” said Sen. Steve Abrams, an Arkansas City Republican and chairman of the Senate Education Committee. “But to actually assign so many dollars to it, I believe, is strictly unconstitutional.”

The Kansas City, Kan., School District is one of the districts involved in the lawsuit, now on appeal to the Kansas Supreme Court. The district’s chief of staff, David A. Smith, said the courts are only telling the Legislature to adhere to its own numbers for education spending.

“The courts are not overstepping their bounds. That’s very, very clear,” Smith said. “The Legislature funded the studies that determined what a suitable education would be.”

Davis, the leading House Democrat, said the suggested ballot language for the constitutional change shows its backers “have done everything they can to persuade voters as to why they should support this.”

To his thinking, the wording unfairly suggests that the constitution currently gives the state Supreme Court full control over how much the Legislature must spend on schools.

“This is obviously a very slanted explanatory statement,” Davis said. “I don’t think it’s an accurate reflection of how the law stands right now.”