Instead of following the Kansas Senate’s lead and altering the state’s constitutional requirement to finance public education suitably, House lawmakers should respect why that amendment was approved to start with: The public wanted a higher standard for funding education than whatever the legislative majority happens to decide.
Since its founding, our state has emphasized that education is a public right. That view was reinforced in 1966 when the public approved a constitutional amendment declaring that the Legislature “shall make suitable provision for finance of the educational interests of the state.”
The point of the amendment is that voters didn’t want education funding left up to the whim of the Legislature. They wanted a suitable level of funding to be a constitutionally protected right.
As with other constitutional rights, concerned parties can petition the courts to make sure the right is being upheld. That helps hold the Legislature accountable.
That’s also what some lawmakers don’t like – especially when the courts tell them to increase funding. They want to insert wording in the constitution saying that “the financing of the educational interests of the state is exclusively a legislative power.”
But a court review is of little value without a remedy for violations. And the courts haven’t pulled school-funding amounts out of thin air – they have been taken from the Legislature’s own studies on what it costs to fund education suitably.
What’s more, these costs are directly linked to mandates by lawmakers. Since the early 1990s, the Legislature has mandated outcomes-based standards for schools. Congress has also passed performance mandates, including the No Child Left Behind law.
As the courts have reviewed whether the state is suitably funding education, they appropriately have asked: What is required of schools, and how much does it cost to meet those requirements? The Legislature’s own mandates and cost studies have provided those answers.
Even now, as lawmakers complain about the latest court ruling, they are considering more mandates – including Gov. Sam Brownback’s proposal to hold back third-graders who aren’t proficient in reading, which the Senate Education Committee wisely rejected this week (though the proposal likely will resurface this session).
The problem isn’t the courts telling lawmakers what to do. It’s the Legislature passing mandates and not paying for them – and then getting mad when the courts call legislators on it.
Instead of amending the constitution, lawmakers need to start following it.
For the editorial board, Phillip Brownlee