Maybe the state’s investment in public schools somehow can brake for recessions without violating the state constitution. But it’s hard to see how, or to imagine the latest state school-finance lawsuit concluding without judges again compelling state lawmakers to put a lot more money into K-12 education.
It was reasonable and appropriate that schools adapt to less state funding during the worst of the Great Recession, a task eased at first by federal stimulus money.
But the key phrase in the Kansas Constitution – “make suitable provision for finance of the educational interests of the state” – is not followed by an escape clause for rough economic times.
The cuts since 2009 to per-pupil funding have led to the real and dramatic loss of educational opportunities across the state. Laid-off teachers, closed buildings, scrapped programs and larger class sizes weren’t in the Legislature’s 2005 and 2006 school plans. And those plans were what led the Kansas Supreme Court to conclude in July 2006 that “the Legislature’s efforts … constitute substantial compliance with our prior orders, through which it will have provided by 2008-09 at least 755.6 million additional dollars to the education of the state’s most precious asset – our children.”
So 54 districts known as Schools for Fair Funding, including Wichita’s USD 259, hauled the state back into court with the new lawsuit that went to trial Monday in Shawnee County.
The state might not be back in court if lawmakers had responded six years ago by identifying a new and dependable revenue stream for schools. Instead, they just applied the short-lived revenue surplus toward their pledge to increase funding by nearly $1 billion over several years. When the surplus dried up with the downturn, they cut per-pupil funding and acted as if the court’s ruling had been a bad dream.
And then, when the spending cuts and nascent economic recovery led to a new surplus this year, lawmakers responded not by replenishing the per-pupil base to court-approved levels but by giving schools a modest per-pupil increase and giving businesses a historic income-tax cut.
This time, the state does have a potentially potent new argument to justify its broken promise – that student achievement has continued to improve, despite cuts. It will be interesting to see whether the judges effectively decide to hold districts’ performance gains against them.
Hard as it is to see school finance back in court, especially with the Wichita district having paid about $725,000 so far to help fund the lawsuit, judges’ responsibilities include holding the Legislature and governor accountable for their compliance with the constitution. And the past two legislative sessions suggest that what lawmakers and the governor consider “suitable” school funding falls far short of reality.
For the editorial board, Rhonda Holman