When it comes to funding schools, Kansas lawmakers know they’re in a hurry.
The state Supreme Court has set an April 30 deadline for submitting a new plan. That gives the right honorables about a month. But there’s a significant rub: The Legislature is scheduled to be off April 6-26.
There are other complicating factors. Some lawmakers remain insistent that a constitutional amendment be passed that would minimize future school spending. Also, a report by a consultant just recommended massive increases in spending if lawmakers want to meet educational goals.
Given all this, legislators need to be laser-focused on the challenge ahead. Here’s what we recommend:
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(1) Lawmakers wasted a lot of time waiting for the report from consultant Lori Taylor, the Texas professor who led the study. Now, both the House and Senate must pass bills outlining new school spending formulas and funding by the end of next week. Then both chambers could consider a final compromise bill in late April.
Lawmakers shouldn’t begin their breaks until their chambers have passed this critical legislation.
2) Given the political realities, lawmakers should aim at a goal of $600 million in new school spending over the next four years. That’s similar to the target that former Gov. Sam Brownback laid out before leaving office, and it’s a goal that new Gov. Jeff Colyer should affirm.
The $600 million figure has kicked around the Legislature for months as a reasonable target. The first leg of such an increase — $150 million — can be achieved this session without a tax increase. That’s significant, given that it’s an election year. And schools cannot realistically absorb more spending in any one year, as Taylor noted in her report.
3) With a new governor and House taking office in January, the task of determining how future increases in school spending are financed should await their consideration. In the years to come, tax increases are likely.
4) The consultant’s report just issued provides a solid map for the years ahead if lawmakers opt to achieve the report’s goals. But lawmakers aren’t bound to follow it to meet the state Supreme Court’s October order. And truth be told, some lawmakers say the report already is gathering dust because it failed to say what some conservative lawmakers who commissioned it anticipated, which is that the state already was spending enough on education.
5) Unlike what happened in the last big court fight over schools, the Kansas Supreme Court should retain jurisdiction over the case as a hammer to force future Legislatures to fulfill funding commitments.
The path ahead is clear, and lawmakers are saying they are confident they can meet the court’s order. Clogging up the works with arguments over constitutional amendments and needless arguments that pit schools against other state needs are counterproductive.
One particularly unhelpful lawmaker is Senate President Susan Wagle, a Wichita Republican. She recently criticized the court again for ordering more school spending, and she also was quick to complain that lawmakers can’t fund schools and the rest of state government at the same time.
That’s patently false, and we expect more than such defeatist attitudes from our leaders. Those attitudes only slow the work that must be done.