TOPEKA — Kansas voters would decide in August 2014 whether courts should have a role in ensuring proper education funding under a proposed constitutional amendment approved by the Senate Wednesday.
The amendment says that school funding should be determined solely by the Legislature. It still must be approved by the House to be placed on the ballot.
The Senate’s 27-13 vote, barely reaching the two-third majority needed for a constitutional amendment, came as the Supreme Court prepares to hear an appeal to a district court ruling that declared Kansas funding for education unconstitutionally low.
Senate Vice President Jeff King, R-Independence, said Kansans didn’t intend for endless court battles when they added to the state constitution a line in 1966 that guaranteed “suitable provision for finance of the educational interests of the state.”
“Nowhere does it talk about a desire of the people of the state of Kansas for appropriation by litigation,” he said, listing the history of school finance lawsuits.
The amendment is the only way to break the cycle of endless litigation over school finance and give Kansas voters the final say on school finance, King said.
But several school districts, Democrats and some moderate Republicans disagree.
Diane Gjerstad, a lobbyist for the Wichita school district, called the amendment to remove the court’s role a game changer.
“It takes away the referee,” she said. “And it takes away the voice of citizens because we represent 50,000 kids.”
Wichita is among the school districts challenging the state’s funding of education as unconstitutional. A district court agreed that the state funding is unconstitutionally low, but the state has appealed the case to the supreme court.
Gjerstad said that if schools suffer as a result, it will have a lasting impact.
“We have a community that wants an educated workforce,” she said. “This is about tomorrow’s Kansas. It’s about the workforce of tomorrow.”
Senate Minority Leader Anthony Hensley, D-Topeka, said the move means people lose their right to seek relief through the courts if the Legislature fails to fund a good education for Kansans.
“That’s what this is all about,” he said.
Republican senators Jay Emler of Lindsborg, Jeff Longbine of Emporia, Carolyn McGinn of Sedgwick, Vicki Schmidt of Topeka, and Kay Wolf of Prairie Village opposed the education amendment along with all eight Senate Democrats.
The Senate’s vote comes after it already approved a proposed constitutional amendment that would change how supreme and appeals court judges are selected. That proposal, which could also end up on August 2014 ballot if approved by the House, would give the governor the power to appoint judges, subject to Senate confirmation.
McGinn tried to change both the judicial selection and education finance amendments so that voters would decide on the issue in November, when more people usually head to the polls.
The Republican party requires primary voters to be registered as Republicans to vote in their primary, and many voters, particularly independents, may not realize they can vote in the primary election on non-partisan issues, such as the constitutional amendment.
“That’s a large group of our citizens that are unable to participate in something that is very important to the education of our children,” she said.
But King argued that delaying may send a message to the Supreme Court that the issue is not an emergency, potentially leading to an order to increase funding before people vote.
McGinn’s proposals were rejected.
Senate Majority Leader Terry Bruce asked whether an unelected branch of government should decide the destiny of kids, or if elected representatives should decide.
“If they do not like how we decide, we will know it in the next election,” he said.
House Speaker Ray Merrick said it’s unclear when the amendment may get a vote in the House. He said it is “a tossup” whether it would pass.
If approved by two-thirds of the House, voters would see the following on their August 2014 ballots:
“The purpose of this amendment is to expressly state that the financing of the educational interests of this state is exclusively a legislative power and is to be determined solely by the Legislature.
"A vote for this proposition would make financing of the educational interests of this state determined solely by the Legislature.
"A vote against this proposition would retain the current provision in the Kansas constitution, which has been interpreted by the Kansas Supreme Court as empowering that court to order the Kansas Legislature to fund public schools in whatever amounts that the Kansas Supreme court may determine necessary."