The Supreme Court’s message to Kansas lawmakers on Friday was straightforward and justifiable:
You’re good for now. But we’ll be watching you.
The court said the Kansas Legislature’s plan to increase annual school funding by $525 million a year is constitutional. But it stopped short of dismissing the case altogether — with good reason.
Justices want to make sure lawmakers follow through on their promises.
That’s a smart move, given the Legislature’s years-long history of complying and then reneging on its constitutional requirement to provide suitable funding for education.
After reaching agreement on school funding in a case called the Montoy decision in 2006, for example, lawmakers reneged and cut funding, prompting the current Gannon case.
It’s smart for the Kansas Supreme Court to retain control of the Gannon lawsuit this time around to ensure lawmakers follow through on their funding plan. That’s the appropriate role of the court, despite arguments from some who have pushed for a constitutional amendment to restrain it.
Meanwhile, it’s crucial that school districts suing the state — including Wichita — refocus on using their additional money to attack the numerous challenges facing public schools.
During a recent report to the Wichita school board, Susan Willis, the district’s chief financial officer, showed a large yellow Pac-Man labeled “wants and needs” preparing to gobble up tiny dots that represented the $19.6 million in additional funding headed their way.
It’s a fitting characterization. The bulk of last year’s $18 million in additional funding went to a long-overdue pay raise for Wichita teachers. This year, contract negotiation teams have discussed an even larger, 6 percent, salary increase.
Salary and benefit packages that attract and retain great teachers is a legitimate starting point. But the district also hopes to tackle classroom behavior issues, increase the graduation rate, offer students more college credits and expand pre-kindergarten programs — all of which require additional resources.
It’s up to the real stakeholders in public schools — students and their families — to push for effective programs and hold districts accountable for how they spend public dollars.
Friday’s ruling marks a potential finish line for the interminable Gannon lawsuit. Let’s hope it also marks the start of both sides owning their responsibility, moving forward and focusing on kids.