Republican leaders in the Kansas Legislature say they may re-think the state’s school funding formula when lawmakers reconvene in January.
It’s hard to imagine a more ill-conceived, unwelcome, unnecessary idea.
After moving in the right direction in 2017 and earlier this year, the state stands on the brink of a fair spending plan for public schools, one that will satisfy the Kansas Supreme Court. By some estimates, another $90 million a year will fairly and fully pay for K-12 education across the state.
Spending that $90 million annually might finally end the eight-year judicial dispute over schools. The plaintiffs might not like the final figure, but the court’s judges have indicated that an adjustment for inflation will meet the goal of a constitutionally-required suitable education.
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But Republican leadership appears determined to snatch disaster from the jaws of legislative accomplishment. The leadership has indicated a preference to A) rework the school formula and B) cut taxes to return the so-called “windfall” from federal tax reform to Kansans.
Both ideas are foolhardy in the extreme. We don’t know the size of a windfall from federal tax reform, or even if there is one. And any major change to the school formula would undoubtedly extend the legal battle, or prompt a new filing for a new generation of Kansas kids.
Kansas voters had a chance to endorse a tax-cutting, public school-bashing agenda in November. That’s what Republican Kris Kobach promised. Voters said no, loudly. GOP leadership should listen.
Some lawmakers are worried about budget shortfalls four or five years from now and are resisting additional school funding on that basis. Bu their track record on projections is poor, and they are hardly in a position to criticize deficit spending, which was a feature of the Sam Brownback-Jeff Colyer years.
Politics are almost certainly part of this. Conservatives seem intent on testing Governor-elect Laura Kelly, daring her to veto tax cuts and school funding bills during her first weeks in office.
It’s a dangerous game. Voters were clear: Fix the schools.
Other Republican legislators may be interested in a 2020 constitutional vote to keep the courts out of the school funding debate. Even in the unlikely event that lawmakers can obtain enough votes to put the issue on the ballot, Kansans would surely do the right thing and ensure that the schools are protected.
Kansas has lots of other problems to wrestle with next year, most of them more difficult than school finance. They’ll discuss expanding Medcaid. Providing tax relief for the poorest Kansans will be on the agenda. The Legislature and the governor must work together to fix the state’s overburdened government structure — including a substandard foster care system and inadequate mental health services.
Election reform is on the table, too. There is plenty of work to be done, and disagreements to settle.
But school funding cannot be an issue. Kansas is this close to fixing a big problem, and lawmakers must finish the job next year.