Opinion Columns & Blogs

Keep school funding out of the courts

So it appears that USD 259 is joining up with dozens of other public school districts around the state to sue (or at least threaten to sue) the Legislature, claiming that cuts in the state's education budget constitute a departure from guaranteed funding formulas — which themselves arise from a long history of previous lawsuits — and thereby violate the state constitution.

I'm a big fan of public education and think that, generally speaking, people ought to be willing to pay more in taxes to support them. But in this case... blah.

Alexis de Tocqueville observed more than 170 years ago that "scarcely any political question arises in the United States that is not resolved, sooner or later, into a judicial question" — and that remains the case. Some people see this as a good thing: Democracy doesn't work for those who have no vote or voice, the argument goes, and so it is appropriate to have an independent judiciary capable of weighing in, issuing judgments and forcing actions in regards to, say, minority populations, unpopular religions, the poor — or in this case, the young students served by public schools.

I wouldn't argue against that principle in an absolute sense. I agree that broad rights do sometimes trump local politics or customary traditions, and that means interventions are sometimes necessary. I have no desire to necessarily see, for example, the Brown v. Topeka Board of Education decision overturned. But the recourse to the judiciary — and the hope that a carefully designed lawsuit will bring judges to discover a right that will force things to change in the favor of the plaintiff — is much, much too common in the United States.

In 2005, Schools for Fair Funding successfully pushed, through judicial action, the Legislature to provide significant increases in education funding, as well as changes in how it was distributed. But those were during relatively flush times. Now we have a situation in which Kansas, like so many other states, is struggling with high unemployment rates, bankruptcies and home foreclosures, all of which cut into the available tax base.

And what is the way school districts are considering resolving this? Democratic deliberation? Trusting our legislators to make the best decisions they can? Getting active through interest groups to demand changes in the funding formula?

No, a lawsuit — in essence, trusting courts to intervene and set up a formula (or at least set themselves up as those responsible for approving or rejecting whatever formula the Legislature comes up with) that they think is fair and mandated by the state's constitution. That will probably similarly result in taxes being raised or transportation or some other portion of the state budget being deeply cut, essentially by mandate.

Think about the reliance upon the judiciary this fosters. Think about the political reforms to make our government's budget process more participatory and transparent that are not pursued because everyone assumes the court system, not political action, is a proper last resort.

Almost everything having to do education funding, like so many other public policy issues, has both good and bad arguments behind, requiring compromising and continual tweaking. To keep such tweaking in the hands of legislators — and, ultimately, in the hands of voters — is the proper way to run a representative democracy.

Ensuring that issues pertaining to fundamental rights are resolved through definitive, even defiant, judicial interventions is one, often necessary thing. But figuring out yearly education budgets? Just not the same thing at all.