Some of the Republicans who control the Kansas House thought it would be smart to try to turn an easy school-funding fix into an epic ideological conquest. Bad idea.
Earlier this month the Kansas Supreme Court ordered the state to fix funding inequities between rich and poor school districts by July 1. Last week Attorney General Derek Schmidt advised the Legislature to keep it simple in response, for legal reasons. Gov. Sam Brownback sounded a similarly conciliatory note. The state even has the $129 million on hand.
So what did the House do? On Thursday its GOP leaders rolled out a massive funding bill loaded up with conservative education policy proposals that lack public support and haven’t even been able to win over legislative committees:
New charter schools and a new Kansas Independent Chartering Board. More “innovative districts” with eased oversight. Merit-based teacher pay and changes in teacher licensing rules. A new “K-12 student performance and efficiency commission.” A corporate tax break for donating to scholarship funds for private schools.
Add in last week’s legislative action about teaching financial literacy, which the House absurdly amended to include instruction on proper handshake technique, and it’s almost as if the state doesn’t have a Kansas State Board of Education empowered by the state constitution to have general supervision of public schools.
By Friday, House Speaker Ray Merrick, R-Stilwell, was backpedaling on the charter school provision, saying it was added without the knowledge of House or Senate leaders or the governor and would be excised.
Even so, other policy issues still could unnecessarily complicate passage of the essential funding bill and invite push-back from the courts.
As Diane Gjerstad, USD 259’s lobbyist, told the Lawrence Journal-World: “We think that the court really made it quite clear that the Legislature should deal with the equity funding, and this bill goes far beyond that.”
Senate leaders also may combine the restored funding with new initiatives. Such bundling fits the worrisome legislative trend of holding money hostage to policy reforms – as exemplified by the Senate-passed bill linking crucial funding for the Kansas court system to unwise and unsupported judicial branch restructuring. In an Eagle commentary last week, Supreme Court Chief Justice Lawton Nuss called that link “glaring” and questioned whether the “package deal” was true to the will of the people.
The same question should be asked about the education reforms coveted by some conservatives and the American Legislative Exchange Council, which has model legislation identical to the charter school language in the House bill.
In a recent survey of Kansas by Public Policy Polling, 59 percent said public schools weren’t adequately funded and the Supreme Court should rule in favor of an increase. In the Kansas Speaks survey released last fall by the Docking Institute of Public Affairs at Fort Hays State University, two-thirds said they wanted to see more K-12 state funding. Where is the groundswell for either an incremental or wholesale privatization of Kansas public schools?
While the lawsuit’s adequacy question is pending a court review, the Supreme Court’s will on the equity issue is clear. So is the remedy.