It will surprise no one if the Kansas Supreme Court again sides with school districts and says the state is underfunding K-12 education. But because the Statehouse is a very different place than it was the last time the court ordered a funding increase, Kansas then could see a showdown that would make the federal shutdown seem tame.
Imagine Gov. Sam Brownback and legislative leaders denouncing and then defying the court, and further undermining its authority with legislation to change how justices are chosen, when they must retire and how much say courts have over school finance and other issues.
Envision a new zeal to justify spending less on K-12 education by reforming it to allow vouchers and more charter schools and to shift more funding responsibility to locals.
And think of how the high court might escalate the conflict, which last time included a threat to shut down schools (a power lawmakers subsequently tried to legislate away).
It would be a disaster for Kansas and potentially Brownback, who is up for re-election next year.
During three hours of oral arguments last week, the state’s attorneys ably tried to persuade the justices that a three-judge special court panel got it wrong in January in ruling that funding is unconstitutionally low and in ordering the Legislature to “begin to effect a cure to the constitutional deficiencies” by increasing base state aid from the current $3,838 per student to $4,492. The state was on track to meet that latter benchmark, based on the Legislature’s own cost studies and set by statute for “2009-10 and each school year thereafter,” until cuts began under the previous governor amid the recession. Wichita USD 259 alone has had to cut more than $50 million, including by axing teaching jobs and closing schools.
“If that promise had been kept, we wouldn’t be here,” commented Justice Eric Rosen during the hearing, of the $4,492 commitment.
Complying now could cost at least $440 million a year – a sum more than the $430 million in current state reserves, and hard to come by as the massive 2012 income-tax cuts sharply reduce revenues. In fact, the state’s defense is badly weakened this time by the passage of those tax cuts, which clearly mattered more to the governor and legislative leaders than any constitutional obligation to make schools whole.
As Wichita attorney Alan Rupe argued for the districts: “They took all the resources out of the system and then stand here and plead that they can’t afford to increase funding to schools.”
And because the Kansas Constitution’s language requiring the state to “make suitable provision for finance of the educational interests of the state” has not changed since the last school-finance showdown ended seven years ago, the court can be expected to concur with the lower court panel and, in effect, itself.
It will be up to state leaders to play their roles responsibly after the high court releases its decision in a few months, and for Kansans to make sure that public schools are as highly valued at the Statehouse as they are statewide.
For the editorial board, Rhonda Holman