Over a span of less than 24 hours, Kansas public schools and the nearly 500,000 children they serve just went from being losers to winners in Topeka.
The story of how that happened involved plenty of public pressure but also behind-the-scenes negotiations.
The condensed version of events:
▪ On Thursday, a destructive proposal crafted by conservative Republican leaders was unveiled with a clause to trim school spending by $13 million next year. It was a near-bizarre attempt by the GOP’s head honchos to say they were going to solve legitimate concerns over school funding by giving less money to education.
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▪ By Friday, a more constructive plan emerged. Put together by moderate GOP members and supported by Democrats, it restored that $13 million.
▪ And late Friday evening, the Kansas House and Senate agreed on what appears to be a constitutional plan to fund K-12 schools for the next year. A threatened shutdown that could have been ordered by the state Supreme Court likely will not occur.
All’s well that ends well, right?
Not exactly. The state is still nearly broke. Very hard-fought legislative elections loom on Aug. 2 and Nov. 8. And a new, major school funding plan will be needed in the 2017 session.
For now, let’s take a look at the winners and losers in the recent two-day special session.
Rep. Melissa Rooker of Fairway worked extremely hard as she led the positive charge for the best ways to serve schools and Kansas taxpayers. She and others were rightly appalled at what Republican leaders initially suggested — to take money out of the classrooms. Eventually, what others billed as the “Rooker plan” found enough sources of funds to navigate through the Legislature on Friday evening. Rooker skillfully showed her lawmaking chops on a crucial issue.
The moderate GOP/Democratic coalition enjoyed a great Friday, led by Rooker and some northeast Johnson County politicians but also by some “traditional” Republicans in other parts of Kansas. Friday’s events showed that the often-flawed legislative process actually can work in Topeka when all sides get chances to properly present their ideas. Johnson County voters especially need to remember that fact in the Aug. 2 primaries. It’s time to elect moderate/traditional Republicans who will work for the good of all Kansans.
Props to Rep. Jim Ward, a Wichita Democrat, for his Twitter outburst Thursday aimed at school leaders who appeared ready to accept the original GOP proposal. “Republicans want to cut schools another $13 million. This is why we are in court so often,” he wrote. And this: “FYI-KS superintendents, if you don’t stand up to bullies they will keep coming back for your lunch money.” Ward’s vote as a Democrat often can be ignored by the GOP. But his voice was invaluable on this one.
Credit where it’s due: Gov. Sam Brownback called the special session that got a good plan done, and from the outset he said it would take $38 million to satisfy the state Supreme Court’s order to constitutionally finance K-12 education.
And discredit where it’s due, too: Brownback unreasonably complained about the court’s involvement in school funding even though the justices were only doing their jobs. On Friday night, as legislators were easily adopting the “Rooker plan,” the governor ignored her contributions. Instead, in a video interview, he praised other Republicans for their work. Agreed: Rep. Ron Ryckman of Olathe helped make sure the Rooker plan eventually passed muster. But he also was too eager to sign on to the bad Thursday bill.
School superintendents Jim Hinson of the Shawnee Mission district and Todd White of the Blue Valley district on Thursday meekly backed the destructive GOP leaders’ funding measure. That could have derailed Rooker’s plan, but it fortunately didn’t. The superintendents also engaged in a complete flip-flop from what they and others had said just days before, when they wanted the Legislature to throw an extra $12 million or so into the education pot to “hold harmless” the Johnson County school districts’ budgets. That didn’t happen, for a good reason: Kansas doesn’t have the money to do it.
House Speaker Ray Merrick of Stilwell on Friday morning was prepared to ram through the original GOP plan to cut school spending. But Rooker and the moderate GOP/Democratic bloc balked and eventually prevailed. It was one final defeat for Merrick, who fortunately won’t return for the 2017 session.
Finally, jeers for the 26 Kansas Senate members who voted in vain to place an unneeded constitutional amendment on the ballot this fall. It was aimed at trying to nullify the power of the state Supreme Court to close schools in the future. Fortunately, it took 27 votes to throw the measure over to the House, where its chances were iffy anyway.
The next meeting of the Kansas Legislature won’t occur until early January 2017, when new members of the House and Senate will take office.
Brownback is not on the 2016 ballot, but voters can send a message to him and his ultraconservative supporters this year: Kansans are tired of the status quo, tired of their public schools being threatened and tired of what the costly 2012 income tax cuts have done in devastating state finances.
Things need to change in Topeka. The school funding plan adopted Friday is one small but crucial step toward making a better future possible in the Sunflower State.