TOPEKA — Kansas lawmakers should define how much a public education should cost, says Gov. Sam Brownback, to settle the vexing debate at the center of the state's money problems.
Schools are the most expensive program for Kansas government — a priority that Brownback likens to the role that the military plays in the federal budget. But many lawmakers say they lack a clear understanding of what the money must pay for.
That uncertainty has prompted lawsuits from parents and school districts who think the state isn't meeting its obligations.
The state constitution states: "The Legislature shall make suitable provision for finance of the educational interests of the state."
But what's "suitable"?
The definition varies from one lawmaker to another, one school district to another, and one parent to another.
There's general agreement that the state should pay for core courses such as reading, writing and arithmetic. But what about football? Teacher raises? High school band? Art classes? Foreign language? A new elementary school?
"For years we have faced repeated legal action against the state because no one knows what a suitable education actually means," said Brownback, a Republican."... Let the Legislature resolve school finance, not the courts."
Brownback's argument goes like this: If the Legislature — either in statute or in a proposed constitutional amendment — figures out what "suitable" means, then it would be easy to determine whether Kansas is spending enough.
That, he said, would make it easier for lawmakers to make the system more cost-effective.
"This will provide us with a definition of what we need to undertake reform of our school finance formula and provide schools with stable, sustainable funding for the future," he said in his State of the State address last week.
Kansas school groups are divided on whether it would really help to define "suitable."
Some Johnson County districts like the idea. If lawmakers figure out a suitable level of school finance, they say, then maybe they can stop restricting how much local districts can spend for extras. State law limits that amount to prevent poorer districts from falling behind.
"Once the state knows what 'suitability' is, and the Legislature funds it, then we're hoping the state wouldn't have a reason to hold back districts who want to go above that," said Tim Rooney, budget director for the Shawnee Mission school district.
But Mark Desetti, a lobbyist for the Kansas National Education Association, said defining suitability isn't as simple as it might sound.
The three R's? Sure. But what about new school nutrition standards, or foreign language, or advanced placement classes?
"It's easy to define if you have an agenda in mind," he said.
House Minority Leader Paul Davis, D-Lawrence, fears that Brownback and other Republicans would set the suitability bar too low as a strategy to underfund schools.
Richer districts might be able to make up the difference with local property taxes, he said, but not poorer districts.
"These are folks who want to shirk their responsibility to public schools," Davis said. "The end result is that local property taxes are going to go up ... and we'll end up with a system of haves and have-nots."
Some lawmakers doubt that defining the term will end expensive legal challenges or the political wrangling.
"Suitability has been talked about, debated, and we've gotten numerous lawsuits," said Sen. Jean Schodorf, R-Wichita and chairwoman of the Senate Education Committee. "If the Legislature comes up with a definition, that's great. But it's not necessarily going to decrease the number of lawsuits."
Desetti has his own idea of what suitable means.
"What I tell people is this: Look at what you want for your child or your grandchild. That's your definition."