What is 'suitable'?

Gov. Sam Brownback put his finger on a key budgetary and legal question: What is a “suitable” K-12 education? But determining the definition is difficult — especially when lawmakers, including Brownback, keep increasing demands on schools.

The Kansas Constitution requires the Legislature to “make suitable provision for finance of the educational interests of the state.” Brownback argued during his State of the State address that “we have faced repeated legal action against the state because no one knows what a ‘suitable’ education actually means.”

He invited lawmakers to “define suitability and end the confusion.” Doing so, he said, would provide the state “with a definition of what we need to undertake reform of our school finance formula and provide our school districts with stable, sustainable funding for the future.”

Brownback was incorrect in saying that “suitable” hasn’t been defined. The state has formally and informally defined it several times over the years based on performance standards or course offerings.

The reason the state keeps getting sued — and why it keeps losing those lawsuits — is that it hasn’t funded what its own studies determined was the cost of providing such an education.

Now, instead of honoring the settlement from the most recent lawsuit, Brownback wants lawmakers to redefine “suitable” — presumably in a way that costs the state less money.

But one big problem with narrowing the definition of “suitable” is that state and federal education standards have shifted from focusing on inputs — such as teachers and course offerings — to outcomes — such as state and national test scores. This move has been driven by lawmakers, many of them conservative critics of public education.

For example, the No Child Left Behind Act, which Brownback voted for when he was a U.S. senator, requires that every student become proficient in reading and math — a statistically impossible standard. Even in his State of the State address, Brownback pronounced that “no child should pass the fourth grade without being able to read.”

Courts have looked to these demands as de facto definitions of “suitable.”

Brownback said that defining “suitable” would mean that the Legislature, not the court, would resolve school finances, enabling the state to “send more money to the classroom, not the courtroom.”

The line received big applause from lawmakers. But if the Legislature tries to dumb down the definition of “suitable” to save money or to off-load more funding responsibility on local districts, it won’t prevent lawsuits, especially if performance mandates remain in place.

That has some lawmakers wondering if the better solution is to remove the word “suitable” from the constitution and make clear that only the Legislature decides what funding level is adequate. But they would have to convince voters that the reason for amending the constitution is to clear up legal confusion and not to shortchange schools.

Given the Legislature’s history, that could be a tough sell.