Editorials

Kansas school funding crisis won’t be solved by legislators’ bellyaching and threats

Once again, some Kansas lawmakers are threatening a constitutional crisis over education spending. But defying the state Supreme Court will only extend litigation that’s already gone on for far too long.
Once again, some Kansas lawmakers are threatening a constitutional crisis over education spending. But defying the state Supreme Court will only extend litigation that’s already gone on for far too long. File photo

Here we go again.

Another unanimous Kansas Supreme Court ruling on school funding has some lawmakers screaming about a court run amok. Once again, they’re threatening a “constitutional crisis,” meaning they would defy the court and refuse to spend the additional dollars the judges ordered.

State Sen. Steve Fitzgerald, a Leavenworth Republican, brandished raw childishness about all this, saying he hopes the state, under the leadership of soon-to-be-governor Jeff Colyer, finds a way “to tell the court to stuff it.”

Really? Stomping and snorting about school funding is getting awfully old, and it does nothing to move the state forward when it comes to solving an extremely difficult problem.

Efforts to tackle that challenge will only be undermined by needless threats about the court and its authority to do what it just did. The court’s power is spelled out in the state constitution, which Fitzgerald has sworn to uphold. Threatening another constitutional crisis adds another needless layer of tension and distraction at a time when the state needs focus and determination.

These days, the court no longer sticks a dollar figure on its proposed remedies because conservative lawmakers, like Fitzgerald, have chosen to politicize those figures as yet more evidence that the court is overstepping its authority.

But the best guess for settling this matter is another $500 million to $600 million. No question that’s a lot of money. For context, this year the Legislature added $488 million over two years to its new funding formula. But the judges wrote that lawmakers failed on two fronts when it comes to suitable funding: adequacy, or the overall amount being spent on schools, and equity, which looks at whether that money is fairly divided between wealthy and poor districts.

To dozens of lawmakers under the Capitol dome, the ruling was no surprise.

Lawyers representing the plaintiff school districts argued convincingly that funding in recent years remained inadequate. In June, they pointed to numbers that showed the state was spending $4,006 a student. A decade ago, lawmakers agreed to a base level of $4,492 per student. Adjusted for inflation, that figure should be $5,035 today.

Fitzgerald should look at those numbers. Telling the court to stuff it may sound appealing in our Trumpian times. But big talk won’t change anything.

The one who’s going to be stuffing it is Fitzgerald, who happens to be a GOP candidate for the state’s 2nd District congressional seat next year.

Fitzgerald joins a squadron of Republican lawmakers over the years who have rattled their sabers in pointless anger over court rulings on school finance. A similar showdown came in 2005 when the court ordered sizable increases.

The objection then, as it is now, is that lawmakers should be making such big decisions. After all, Supreme Court judges are not elected. But courts exist for a reason, such as now when lawmakers fail to do what’s necessary to properly educate kids.

Conservative groups already had started sending mailers to voters condemning lawmakers who raised taxes in response to earlier Supreme Court rulings. Maybe those lawmakers who did the right thing should sit this one out and let the Fitzgeralds of Kansas do what’s needed. That means solving this difficult problem, which almost certainly will involve raising taxes in 2018.

That, by the way, is the election year when Fitzgerald will be seeking his promotion.

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