Some people were surprised that Kansas lawmakers were able to wrap up their special session so quickly last week. It took just two days for everyone to find common ground, pass a bill adjusting school financing in the state to make it more fair and then skedaddle.
In retrospect, though, the quick resolution of the fairness part of the school finance mess seems pretty predictable.
For all the thunder from conservative lawmakers, a constitutional showdown over $38 million was unlikely. Many legislators will face voters in about a month, and the last thing they wanted to do was spend those weeks explaining why schools had to close.
Gov. Sam Brownback, in the middle of the relentless revenue nightmare in Kansas, wanted a quick fix too. That helped. The Kansas Supreme Court probably wanted to avoid a messy confrontation, giving legislators some leeway.
Premium content for only $0.99
For the most comprehensive local coverage, subscribe today.
The last hurdle was cleared when Johnson County school district officials accepted a whacking to their state aid. The school administrators started out by asking to be “held harmless” from a budget solution, only to acquiesce in the final hours to actual cuts.
But the most important reason the session ended early is the most obvious: The fix was easy. Yes, $38 million is a lot of money, but Topeka has a fascinating ability to shift cash around when it wants to.
No one should be fooled, however. The next portion of the school finance case — whether Kansas is spending enough to provide its children a “suitable” education — will be as brutal and difficult as the just-resolved fairness question was simple.
You’ll hear an enormous outcry over the next months about the role of the state Supreme Court in determining how much money is needed for suitable schools. Lawmakers will say it’s their right to set that level, not the right of justices.
They’re only partially right, though. If the governor and Legislature set school spending at $10 a student, for example, that would obviously be unsuitable, and someone — the courts — would have to step in.
But there’s another side to the coin. The courts can’t order unlimited spending, no matter how much they might want to. Requiring an individual tutor for every student in the state would certainly guarantee a suitable education, but it would be financially ruinous and untenable.
The answer — stop me if you’ve heard this before — is finding a balance of spending and outcomes, an agreement that provides the most learning for the least amount of tax money possible.
Finding that spot will be monumentally difficult. You’ll hear chatter about Rose standards, and Augenblick and Myers, and school consolidation and teacher salaries, and all the rest of it between now and January, when the Legislature meets to confront whatever remedy the courts order.
You’ll hear complaints, compliments, anger, despair. You may hear figures of several hundred million dollars tossed around. Johnson County schools will be back, hoping to recoup the cuts they accepted a few weeks ago.
Oh, and the state will be broke. There’s that too.
In a normal political system, legislators of good faith would begin working now on a solution. These are not normal times. When the extremes are in charge, finding balance is extremely difficult.
It’s likely there will be at least some new faces in Topeka next year when the school funding debate begins. They should bring several changes of clothes. Finding the answer on adequate funding for Kansas schools may be as nasty and long as the special session was pleasant and short.