Government & Politics

Raise taxes for schools? Defy the court? Amend the Constitution? Candidates weigh in

Teacher Kathy Silverman spoke with fifth-graders at Stony Point South Elementary School in Kansas City, Kan.,  as the students gathered on Jan. 20, 2017, to watch Donald Trump be sworn in as president. Kansas City, Kan., Public Schools is one of the four districts that sued the state in 2010 over education funding.
Teacher Kathy Silverman spoke with fifth-graders at Stony Point South Elementary School in Kansas City, Kan., as the students gathered on Jan. 20, 2017, to watch Donald Trump be sworn in as president. Kansas City, Kan., Public Schools is one of the four districts that sued the state in 2010 over education funding.

Gov. Jeff Colyer doesn't want lawmakers to defy the Kansas Supreme Court when it comes to the state's school funding crisis.

But Colyer, who will have to deal with the issue ahead of the August Republican primary, does want to see the court case that caused the situation come to an end.

His chief rival for the GOP nomination for governor, Secretary of State Kris Kobach, has said he wants to see lawmakers move forward with the difficult task of changing the state's Constitution when it comes to education funding.

After a study released March 16 showed that Kansas would need to increase education funding by up to $2 billion to reach high targets for student achievement, or by more than $450 million for a lower mark, The Star asked candidates for Kansas governor about their stances on school finance and a possible tax increase.

Most shared their thoughts on how Kansas should deal with the state Supreme Court’s ruling last year that found funding unconstitutional.

Kobach criticized the court and the study.

"The next governor is going to have to face this issue," Kobach said. "And the bottom line is, the constitution of Kansas gives to the elected representatives of the people the sole decision-making about how much money to spend and how much taxes to levy upon the people of Kansas. There may be yet another situation down the road where that prerogative of the legislature is challenged."

Insurance Commissioner Ken Selzer did not respond to the questionnaire sent to his campaign. House Democratic Leader Jim Ward responded with a statement rather than full answers.

Every other major candidate responded with detailed answers, except for one.

A spokesman for independent Greg Orman’s campaign said: “Moving forward the campaign will be releasing policy plans on education and other issues and sharing them with voters on a timetable and in a format that makes the most sense for us.”

The statement said that Orman expects lawmakers to comply with the court's order.

The Star asked these questions:

Should the Kansas Legislature defy the Kansas Supreme Court’s order to constitutionally fund schools?

No, said Colyer and fellow Republican Jim Barnett, along with all the Democrats who answered.

“The Legislature should have a meaningful response to the Supreme Court that invests in our kids and ends the school finance litigation,” Colyer's campaign said.

That left Kobach as the only major candidate taking issue with the court.

In an interview, Kobach didn’t dismiss the notion of defying the court, an idea that has been pushed by some conservatives but never actually attempted by lawmakers.

Flouting the court’s order would trigger a constitutional crisis, but Kobach said the state is already in the midst of one.

“We’re already in a crisis and that’s one option that has to stay on the table,” he said.

Would you support a constitutional amendment that would remove a requirement that the Legislature provide “suitable” provision for school funding?

The Democratic field, along with Republican Barnett, all said they opposed a constitutional amendment.

“I am a passionate advocate for leaving the constitution alone,” Democrat Josh Svaty said.

“It’s time to stop making excuses,” Democratic state Sen. Laura Kelly said. “ I have always supported investing in our schools and doing right by our kids.”

Colyer’s campaign wouldn’t rule out trying to change the constitution.

“The governor will review any constitutional amendment proposal from the Legislature that would end the cycle of litigation going forward,” his campaign said in an email.

That left only Kobach vocally calling for such a move.

“The Kansas Supreme Court has ripped the word 'suitable' out of context in the Kansas Constitution; it does not empower unelected judges to make policy decisions regarding education,” Kobach said in an email. “I therefore support a constitutional amendment to stop the Court from twisting the meaning of the Kansas Constitution.”

What school funding target comes closest to where you think the state should be?

None of the candidates pledged support for the funding increase of up to $2 billion.

Kelly and Barnett pointed to a possible $600 million increase. The others declined to give an exact number.

“The recent study needs to be evaluated for accuracy, but at a minimum, it shows that our current leaders have failed to fund our students’ futures,” Democrat Carl Brewer, a former Wichita mayor, said in an email. “Based on the study, the $600 million increase requested by many education advocates must be a serious part of the conversation.”

Colyer "believes that teachers and school districts need to be at the table with legislators to solve the school finance litigation for good,” his spokesman Kendall Marr said.

“The governor believes that by working with all parties we can resolve the court case and get the focus back to Kansas kids.”

Would you support a tax increase to provide better funding for Kansas schools?

Unsurprisingly, none of the candidates was enthusiastic about a tax increase.

“Only as a last resort,” Kelly said.

While none of the Democrats who fully answered the questionnaire completely ruled out a tax increase, both Colyer and Kobach opposed the move.

“The people of Kansas have already faced record hikes in income taxes and sales taxes and have watched their property taxes rise through unending increases in property appraisals — they simply can’t afford any more,” Kobach said.

Others hoped that revenue growth could be the path forward for the state.

“With the state's agriculture and energy economies still teetering on the edge, I'm not sure Kansas has the appetite for another tax increase, and feel we are better off watching revenue estimates and improving the economy for the next few years,” Svaty said in an email.

The Star's Bryan Lowry contributed to this report