Gov.-elect Sam Brownback has designated education as one of his top priorities and wants to bring the endless cycles of litigation over school finance to a close. In pursuing his affirmative agenda for education, he will soon discover the challenges of public school politics and the constitutional obstacles in his way.
For starters, the public school enterprise is vast, representing more than $5 billion in annual spending and claiming more than half of state sales and income taxes and nearly half of all property taxes — which are distributed by an arcane formula understood by few. More than 2,000 locally elected school board members serve without pay and oversee 110,000 teachers and other school personnel, all dedicated to the public school cause and well-represented in the state Capitol.
The Kansas Constitution vests "supreme executive power" in the governor, but its education article makes the governor a bystander in leading educational reform. The article creates an unwieldy public school establishment largely immune from gubernatorial direction. It consists of an elected State Board of Education, a commissioner of education appointed by the board and 300 locally elected school boards — all with constitutional standing.
State statutes require the governor to recommend a budget for education, but none of the 280 employees in the State Department of Education reports to the governor.
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Further, state courts have aggressively entered the picture and created a conundrum of school finance. The Kansas Constitution requires the Legislature to "make suitable provision for finance of the educational interests of the state," but state courts have welcomed lawsuits by local school boards claiming their funding to be unsuitable.
Many have made such claims repeatedly over the past 50 years. Currently, 63 school districts are taking the state to court, beginning the fifth cycle of litigation since the "suitable" language was adopted in 1966.
In 1991, a state District Court judge in Shawnee County asserted the state was 100 percent responsible for financing schools, essentially overturning 130 years of local obligation in educational finance.
In 2005, courts ordered lawmakers to appropriate "a minimum increase of $285 million" over the prior year. Then, in 2006, court action forced the Legislature to add $750 million to school funding within fiscal years 2006 through 2009.
In sum, the education article and related court action have moved duly elected state lawmakers — the governor and the Legislature — to the sidelines in governing and financing public schools. Any agenda for educational reform will be subject to the liking of the state's educational establishment and state court judges.
Brownback and his party's sizable legislative majorities should extend their time horizons beyond next year's school budget and tackle the education article of the state's constitution. Let Kansas voters decide whether the governor should be assigned a leadership role in the state's primary obligation of public education. And let voters decide whether they prefer decisions on school spending to be made by state court judges or state lawmakers.
They should take advantage of a rare opportunity to place before Kansas voters constitutional amendments that better position Kansas for the education challenges of the 21st century.