Kansas schoolchildren are still being short-changed by the state’s lawmakers, the state’s Supreme Court said Monday. Schools are underfunded, it said, and what money is available is distributed unfairly.
Both problems must be fully and finally fixed by next spring. It can be done. All it takes is political courage.
Predictably, that courage seemed in short supply Monday. The court’s ruling set off one more tiresome round of caterwauling about unelected judges usurping the responsibility of the Legislature.
The decision “is yet another regrettable chapter in the never-ending cycle of litigation over Kansas school funding,” Gov. Sam Brownback said.
The statement was extraordinarily unhelpful. Kansas is trapped in ongoing school litigation precisely because its lawmakers refuse to do what they must: provide enough money to educate all the children in the state.
The Kansas Supreme Court was emphatic. “We decline to allow (school spending) inadequacy to keep cutting its swath,” its judges said Monday.
We once suggested the state pause for a while to see if the recently-passed school formula would work. But the court said convincingly Monday that all available evidence reinforces the fear that the state’s schools are falling further behind.
The court, frustratingly, still refuses to draw a precise road map for lawmakers to follow. But there are hints.
By one estimate, it would take an additional $600 million, at minimum, to come close to matching the school funding level of the mid-2000s in Kansas, adjusted for inflation. That kind of spending, fairly distributed to help poorer districts better educate their students, would likely pass judicial muster.
But the state must show its work, the court said Monday. The Legislature should “explain why it made its particular choice for reaching the constitutional standards for adequacy and equity,” it said.
Lawmakers might find some of that money by insisting on greater efficiencies in school districts, through consolidation, joint purchasing and limits on administrative salaries. There may also be exemptions and loopholes in property and sales tax laws that could be closed, raising more funds.
But higher income taxes must be on the table. Despite this year’s $1.2 billion, two-year tax hike, income tax rates in Kansas are still substantially lower than they were in 2012. Simply returning to those rates would allow full funding of schools and provide for other needed state programs.
Legislative leaders will be loath to consider tax hikes in an election year. The challenge will be made more difficult by wild-eyed candidates who will try to shamefully convince voters that going back to 2011 taxes will cause the state to collapse.
And imagine the reaction of Kansas voters if legislators could say with confidence they fixed school funding permanently.
We think Kansans would applaud that result and vote for candidates who helped deliver it.
Brownback will soon leave Kansas. That creates space for Lt. Gov. Jeff Colyer and moderate legislators of good faith to find a combination of policies that will end the school lawsuit nightmare.
If they fail, the court may end up running the schools. No one wants that, the judges least of all. Legislators must find a way to avoid that disaster next year.