Should Kansas courts have the ability to close schools?
Voters could be asked that question as early as this spring under a proposal from Sen. Dennis Pyle, R-Hiawatha.
He and other lawmakers fear the Kansas Supreme Court could close schools this summer if it doesn’t like how the Legislature responds to a ruling that school funding is unconstitutional and inadequate. Lawmakers worry the court could block the state’s education funding, cutting off the dollars that districts need to operate.
In October, justices vowed they would no longer be "complicit actors" in inadequate school funding. They gave lawmakers until April 30 to tell the court what they are going to do about it.
Pyle wants Kansas voters to decide before that deadline whether the Supreme Court should have the ability to close schools.
"Putting the issue of school authority before the voters is a sensible proposal for resolution of these continuing costly legal battles,” Pyle said.
Kansas has been in and out of school finance litigation for decades. The current lawsuit began in 2010 and has reached the Supreme Court multiple times.
Attorneys for school districts suing the state say upwards of $600 million more is needed for schools now. An increase that large could require significant tax increases or deep budget cuts to state agencies.
Even without spending more on schools, Kansas will be in the red $156 million beginning in fiscal year 2020 without changes to the budget, according to figures from legislative researchers.
Kansas now spends about $4.3 billion annually on schools. It is spending $485 million more on schools over two years under the school funding formula struck down by the court.
Lawmakers have questioned the Legislature’s ability – or willingness – to boost school funding by the amount sought by the plaintiff districts.
"This is not a reasonable court. So it’s high time we stood up to them and said, ‘Go pound sand," Rep. John Whitmer, R-Wichita, said.
Sen. Lynn Rogers, D-Wichita, called a constitutional amendment a waste of time. Rogers serves on the board for the Wichita school district, one of the districts suing the state.
Kansas citizens don’t want to see the state constitution’s education provisions "cheapened," he said.
"It’s, ‘OK, I’ve lost the game and I want to change the rules and go backwards,’" Rogers said of a possible amendment.
Pyle said that by holding a special election in April it’s possible his proposal could get to voters before the deadline set by the court.
Some Republican lawmakers have spoken about a constitutional amendment over the past few weeks, but Pyle appears to be the first to make a public proposal. Any constitutional amendment faces a high bar to become law: the House and Senate must approve amendments with a two-thirds majority, and a majority of voters must support it.
The push for a constitutional amendment comes from conservative Republicans. Democrats and moderate Republicans have been indifferent or opposed.
That raises questions about whether amendment supporters could find enough votes. Some have suggested less-conservative lawmakers may support an amendment because some Democrats and moderate Republicans voted in favor of the school funding formula that the court struck down.
"Even liberal and moderate Republicans were cut down by this court. So I think there might be an appetite to say unending expensive litigation has got to stop," Rep. Susan Humphries, R-Wichita, said.
House Speaker Ron Ryckman, R-Olathe, has said a school finance committee may recommend a constitutional amendment. Senate President Susan Wagle, R-Wichita, has said a possible response is altering the constitution to remove a requirement that the Legislature provide "suitable" provision for school funding.
House Republicans are having active discussions about a constitutional amendment, said House Majority Leader Don Hineman, R-Dighton. He emphasized there’s no consensus on what an amendment would say and said there is no language he currently supports.
"I think it’s worth having the discussion," Hineman said.
Senate Majority Leader Jim Denning, R-Overland Park, said he would look at an amendment, especially if the Supreme Court is threatening to close schools. That would be "the trigger to send it the folks to let them vote," on a change, he said.
Denning said Monday afternoon he had not seen Pyle’s proposal.
Pyle released his idea as a committee charged with developing a response to the Supreme Court held its first meeting. The committee received overviews of school finance history, but largely held off on debate over how to respond. The panel will meet again later this month.
The committee listed possible responses – including commissioning an outside expert to develop a recommendation. Legislative leaders have already approved spending $200,000 to hire an expert.
Rep. Ed Trimmer, D-Winfield, lent support to a study, but said it shouldn’t be done with the hope of telling lawmakers that they can spend less on schools while complying with the court.
"I don’t want to have a result that’s the goal of the study. I don’t think that’s good study procedure," Trimmer said.