Eagle editorial: Be wise on school equity

Gov. Sam Brownback said “significant new funding” would be needed to address inequities.
Gov. Sam Brownback said “significant new funding” would be needed to address inequities.

Gov. Sam Brownback and Attorney General Derek Schmidt have shown the Legislature the way to the exits on K-12 school funding, at least for the short term. Lawmakers should be smart enough to follow them and avert a court fight over equity.

Briefing the House Appropriations Committee on Tuesday, Schmidt repeatedly stressed the importance of the July 1 deadline the Kansas Supreme Court recently set for the state. That’s when lawmakers need to have addressed the unconstitutional inequities created since 2009 by cuts in the state funding subsidizing poor districts’ capital outlay and local option budgets. “Find a way, between now and July 1, before you go home, to provide that equalization aid,” Schmidt urged lawmakers.

In a statement Wednesday, Brownback sounded a similar theme, calling for the equity issue to be addressed completely this year and saying it “will require significant new funding.”

The cost of the equalization measures has been estimated as $129 million. Democrats introduced bills last week to use $103.9 million from state reserves and allow the transfer of $25.2 million in capital outlay funds – which would get where the state needs to be, but immediately drew flak from the heavily Republican Legislature.

Some GOP lawmakers have other ideas, arguing that the court didn’t specify a number and that perhaps moving some money around will suffice.

Senate Ways and Means Committee Chairman Ty Masterson, R-Andover, variously said this week that his committee would consider rewriting the school-finance formula and that he intended to craft a bill that would link more funding with policy changes such as alternative teacher licensing.

But Schmidt has concluded that “the further you move away from full funding under the current law, the greater the risk the lower court may find that action constitutionally unacceptable.”

Shortchanging or stiffing the districts could invite further review – and trouble – from the same three-judge panel that ruled last year that state funding was unconstitutionally low. In the worst-case scenario, the panel would enjoin districts’ use of the LOB mechanism, costing them $1 billion statewide. That would be a disaster for schools, but also bad politics in a re-election year.

And how the Legislature handles the problem of inequitable funding, Schmidt said, could influence the same panel’s reconsideration of whether state funding is adequate under the Kansas Constitution. That pending adequacy question is where the stakes and the state’s potential liability get really high.

Of course, doing as Brownback and Schmidt say also would get school districts some of the budgetary relief they need, and are entitled to, sooner rather than later.

The governor and attorney general are right. Resistance to the high court’s order on equity is both unwise and unnecessary.

For the editorial board, Rhonda Holman