Kansas Solicitor General Toby Crouse offered a stunning suggestion Tuesday while arguing the school finance case before the state’s Supreme Court.
Crouse urged the judges to accept the Legislature’s latest blueprint for schools, which would phase in $548 million in additional education spending over five years.
After that, Crouse said, the court should dismiss the case.
What happens, one justice asked, if the Legislature breaks its promise? What if it ends up cutting school spending next year, or the year after that?
Easy, Crouse replied. Someone can file a new lawsuit.
Hearts sank across the crowded courtroom. Kansans don’t agree on much these days, but they do agree on this: The prospect of yet another decades-long court case over school funding is too terrible to contemplate.
One problem is the state Supreme Court itself. It has repeatedly said the Legislature has failed to provide a “suitable” education, as the constitution requires, but has stubbornly refused to say how much money it would take to solve the problem.
That may be good jurisprudence, but it’s lousy politics. It’s allowed state lawmakers to argue relentlessly about what “suitable” really means, wasting time and enormous political energy over many years.
Kansas legislators are like an 11-year old ordered to clean up his bedroom. He’ll toss a few dirty socks under the mattress, wave a dust cloth at the dresser and pronounce the job finished.
Mom — inspecting the work — doesn’t agree. That leads to a relentless argument over what “clean” really means.
Most parents know how to deal with this. They’ll agree with the child on what must be cleaned, set a reasonable timetable for doing the work, then check the room.
And enlightened kids know a secret: They exceed their parents’ tidiness expectations. Suddenly, room-cleaning is no longer an issue.
Kansas has been in court for decades because it ignores that lesson. Its elected leaders rarely focus on how to make schools better. Instead, they ask: What’s the very least we can do to make the court happy?
The only way to answer that question is to go to court. Again and again and again.
That may be good politics, but it’s lousy jurisprudence. It guarantees routine interference with legislative decisions, sharp disagreements over definitions and constant struggles over who gets the final say.
In 2008, the base state aid in Kansas was $4,400 per pupil. A simple adjustment for inflation would mean a per-pupil base of more than $5,100 today.
It’s currently $4,006 per pupil. That’s throwing dirty socks under the mattress.
The next governor and the next Legislature could change all this. They could commit to statewide educational excellence, not a least-common-denominator spending “floor” for schools.
Lawmakers could also end needless attacks on the court’s role in the case by understanding this: The way to get the courts out of education is to fully fund education.
There is another possibility, of course. Kansans could elect a governor committed to re-digging the hole the state is just crawling out of. Voters could elect legislators who want to wail about unfairness and changing the state’s constitution.
That road, as Toby Crouse suggested Tuesday, leads right back to the courthouse.
It would also leave a generation of Kansas students cheated of the education they have a right to expect.