Just fund schools

If the Kansas Legislature would do its constitutional duty and suitably fund K-12 education, it wouldn’t need to worry about the courts holding it accountable.

But some lawmakers, particularly House leaders, seem more interested in punishing public schools than in properly funding them.

The House tried to advance a constitutional amendment declaring that courts or the executive branch couldn’t direct the Legislature to appropriate money. It was in response to a 2005 Kansas Supreme Court ruling that the state wasn’t equitably and adequately funding schools. And it was in anticipation of the pending trial of a lawsuit filed after the Legislature reneged on its funding agreement and cut per-pupil base funding back to 1999 levels.

The measure received the necessary majority on the first vote Tuesday. But on the final vote Wednesday, it fell just short of the two-thirds requirement.

Perhaps lawmakers realized that instead of trying to amend the Kansas Constitution, they should focus on trying to restore education funding.

That’s what a Senate bill attempts to do. It would increase funding by $74 per pupil each of the next two years. It passed 31-9, reflecting bipartisan support and both moderate and conservative GOP backing.

The House has yet to pass a school-finance plan. What has made it to the floor so far has been legislation aimed at making life even tougher for school districts.

One plan pushed by House Appropriations Committee Chairman Marc Rhoades, R-Newton, would have withheld $29 million from schools for the current year. It reflected the misguided notion of House Speaker Mike O’Neal, R-Hutchinson, that school districts should be forced to spend down their cash reserves.

To their credit, House lawmakers voted 116-1 to restore the funding.

On Monday the House also voted down a plan backed by House Education Committee Chairman Clay Aurand, R-Belleville, that would have created a new tax break to attract students to private or parochial schools. Though more education opportunities can be good, many lawmakers questioned how the state could afford to create a voucher program for private schools when it isn’t suitably funding public schools.

“Is it our duty to use tax dollars and tax policy to send Kansas money to private schools?” asked Rep. Bob Brookens, R-Marion. “Kansas was built on, and Kansas will live or die on, its public education.”

Rep. Jim Ward, D-Wichita, tried Monday to replace the House voucher bill with the Senate funding plan.

“I have a scholarship program for every child that enters public schools,” Ward said. “I’m going to call it ‘state aid.’”

His amendment failed 50-70.

Yet lawmakers whine when the state gets sued.

For the editorial board, Phillip Brownlee