Kansas legislators struggling with how to make state funding of schools constitutional were told on this page Jan. 6 that “nearly 60 percent” of Kansans want the state constitution changed “so that courts are not able to set school funding levels.”
The 60-percent figure comes from SurveyUSA research done for the Kansas Policy Institute, Charles Koch’s lobbying arm in state affairs. Legislators and taxpayers should be wary of KPI’s assertion and take time to read the survey results (Kansaspolicy.org/polling) and analyze the questions asked and those not asked.
They will find a mixture of push polling — designed to produce a desired result — misleading, sometimes unintelligible wording and a bit of voodoo math.
The issue of changing the constitution arises because conservatives dislike the Kansas Supreme Court’s ruling that state funding of public schools is constitutionally inadequate and inequitable. The court last year ordered the state to cure the unconstitutionality. Notably — and quite deliberately — the court did not specify how much money would be required to do so, recognizing that the constitution reserves the power of the purse to the legislature and the executive branch.
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Why is the court involved in the issue at all? Because the court system is solely designated to settle disputes about constitutionality that arise among citizens and branches of government. That’s its duty.
So conservatives are hoping to push lawmakers and their constituents into curbing the court’s authority through constitutional change, a dangerous path to start down.
The KPI survey is their latest tool for distorting the separation of powers doctrine by “proving” that most Kansans want to curtail the court’s authority.
Here’s how it gets to that “nearly 60 percent” result:
▪ A series of questions begin with, “In order to meet the court-mandated minimum… ” But there is no court-mandated minimum; it ordered, without using any numbers, that the legislature come up with a plan that cures the unconstitutionality.
▪ That misleading, loaded opening phrase introduces three alternative ways of raising the money. For instance, “…with an income tax increase, legislators would have to impose a 20 percent surcharge on your income tax bill. Should legislators…” do that? The scary 20-percent increase is a contrived number, arrived at by using the highest of a wide array of estimates from various sources: remember, the court has not specified a number, though the question indicates that it has.
▪ The same voodoo math is used to project an 8-percent sales tax (here comes a classic push-polling trick) “ … which would be the highest state sales tax rate in the nation.” Next: “ … a doubling of property taxes.” Each of those separate alternatives implies that the entire additional increase would come from each one. That, obviously, could not happen, but it’s deliberately frightening.
Having set up the respondents with nonsensical scenarios, the survey then focuses on its obvious objective, asking: “Which of the following best describes your position on the issue:
“Change the constitution so that K-12 funding levels are solely determined by the Kansas legislature? (21 percent chose that.)
“Implement a rule-based approach in the constitution … that is not open to legal interpretation.” (38 percent)
“Or, no change … the judicial system should be responsible for making this determination.” (20 percent)
The “nearly 60 percent” number comes from adding 21 and 38 percent, despite the fact that the meaning and implications of “rules-based approach” are never explained to the 512 respondents.
Another 21 percent — as many as favored option one — answered “not sure.”
Among other major problems:
▪ The “no change” option again implies that the court presently determines how much is spent. It doesn’t, and cannot.
▪ Only those three draconian funding options were offered. There was no option, for instance, for smaller-scaled increases across all taxes, including “sin” taxes, and fees. Also omitted: compromises that the court might accept, such as committing to a multi-year plan.
▪ The sample was not sorted for households with school-age children, so it’s impossible to know if the result was biased one way or the other by that failure.
The upshot: The survey misleads legislators and citizens and distracts them from the difficult and unavoidable task of creating a remedy.
Davis Merritt, Wichita journalist and author, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.