Local Columnists

Dave Helling: Censorship shouldn’t be an issue in Kansas school finance case

The courts, the Legislature and Gov. Sam Brownback are all trying to figure out how much money to spend on public schools in Kansas, a dispute that goes back decades.
The courts, the Legislature and Gov. Sam Brownback are all trying to figure out how much money to spend on public schools in Kansas, a dispute that goes back decades. rsugg@kcstar.com

Last week, the Shawnee Mission School District told the Kansas Supreme Court that the state’s cap on local spending for education should be lifted. The cap, it said, “has led to a crippling loss of teachers, loss of foreign language programs, larger class sizes, closure of neighborhood schools and loss of property values.”

The spending cap was put in place to make Kansas’ school funding system more fair for every student. The court is trying to figure out if the scheme has accomplished that goal.

Oral arguments on the question are set for early November, and a decision is possible by year’s end.

It isn’t clear whether the spending caps have been the calamity that the district claims, but even if they have been a disaster, it isn’t enough for the court to throw them out. To prevail, the district and its allies must convince the court the caps violate the Kansas Constitution or the U.S. Constitution or other relevant laws.

To do that, the district has waded into some very murky waters.

In its brief, the district claims spending caps violate the First Amendment.

“Ceilings on education are but censorship by another name,” the brief says.

We should allow lawyers some leeway in throwing arguments against a wall to see what sticks, but to suggest that an education spending cap is censorship deeply misinterprets the term.

School spending caps don’t prevent teachers from teaching. They don’t prevent parents from paying for additional outside instruction or special coaching. They don’t prevent students from reading or watching supplemental materials. They don’t prevent discussion, debate, learning. They don’t, in short, censor anything.

The caps limit spending on public education, but they don’t limit education, which — spoiler alert — can take place outside a classroom as well as in one and doesn’t always involve money.

This summer, a federal appeals court could barely conceal its laughter at the First Amendment argument in a case filed by parents in the Shawnee Mission district. Parents can donate to schools, the judges pointed out.

“No court has ever recognized that a limit on public funding of education constitutes a limit on speech,” the judges said.

The courts, the Legislature and the governor are all trying to figure out how much money to spend on public schools in Kansas, a dispute that goes back decades. Shawnee Mission district patrons who think the formula is wrong are free to make that argument in public or at the polls, or to try to make a different argument before the court, as other districts have done.

But they’re wrong to argue that the Kansas scheme violates the First Amendment. Voters and taxpayers should save their energy to fight actual censorship, not what the district is claiming here.

Dave Helling: 816-234-4656, @dhellingkc

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