If it’s a good-faith move, the state’s request last week for mediation in the ongoing school-finance lawsuit seems like cause for cautious optimism. Too bad there are so many other reasons to view it as a stalling tactic unlikely to prevent a constitutional showdown.
Acting at the request of Gov. Sam Brownback, Attorney General Derek Schmidt filed motions Thursday with the Kansas Supreme Court requesting both the mediation and a stay of last month’s Shawnee County District Court ruling that current state funding of K-12 public schools is unconstitutionally low.
To his credit, Brownback acknowledged in a statement that “we owe it to Kansas taxpayers, parents, teachers and students to examine every available avenue to resolve this dispute to the satisfaction of all involved.”
But the parties in the lawsuit would go into mediation far, far apart.
When the three-judge panel sided with the school districts that sued the state, including Wichita’s USD 259, it called for lawmakers to raise the base per-pupil state aid by $654.
Meanwhile, Brownback recommends no per-pupil increase for schools next year and only $14 the next.
The gap between zero and $437 million, which is what the court’s funding directive would cost the state in the 2013-14 school year, is quite a chasm to bridge in mediation or anywhere else, especially with the governor trying to cover a budget shortfall created by last year’s imprudent income-tax cuts and asking the Legislature for more.
Hopes for a settlement are dragged further down by other recent schools-related activity at the Statehouse.
The GOP push to alter the constitution to give Brownback more power to choose appellate judges and to spell out that “the financing of the educational interests of the state is exclusively a legislative power” are both aimed at avoiding a replay of 2005 and 2006, when the Legislature dramatically increased school funding on orders from the state Supreme Court. Brownback’s claim that only 54 percent of education dollars go to instruction, and insistence on aiming for the arbitrary 65 percent standard, similarly seems meant to undercut arguments that schools are underfunded. The Statehouse also is seeing efforts to curb school districts’ lobbying and teachers unions’ political activity and collective-bargaining power – legislation that hardly could be interpreted as pro-public schools.
Plus, it’s hard to see any agreement reached with a mediator automatically holding up in the House or Senate, where appropriations for schools and other state-funded services must be approved. And if the confidentiality of mediation “will enhance the probability that a settlement can be reached,” as Schmidt said, it would deny Kansans the ability to observe such an important decision-making process.
But a court order is not the preferred method for getting the Legislature to follow the constitution and “make suitable provision for finance of the educational interests of the state.” If mediation can be the means to ending both the lawsuit and the trend of deep cuts to school operating budgets, Kansans should be all for it.