The Kansas Policy Institute, Charles Koch’s state lobbying arm, has issued its marching orders to legislators as they prep for perhaps the toughest and most significant session in the state’s history.
Unfortunately, if predictably, the command is, “To the rear, march.”
Legislators who will convene in January are already working on a response to the Kansas Supreme Court’s October order requiring a substantial increase in public school funding. The order is backed up by the harsh human and political reality that the court could prevent schools opening next year if the funding does not pass constitutional muster.
The KPI’s plan was unveiled in this space Oct. 26 by its president, Dave Trabert. The manifesto begins cynically, Trabert writing that while there are legitimate reasons to argue for simply defying the Kansas Supreme Court’s order, that would not be good for students, who are, he contends, at the heart of KPI’s involvement in the issue. It closes by urging legislators to follow a three-step plan that is a classic passive-aggressive substitute for outright defiance and which, if carried out, surely would be seen by the court as defiance. The difference between the beginning and the end of the manifesto is negligible.
The KPI is associated with the ultra-conservative American Legislative Exchange Council, which churns out cookie-cutter “model” legislation and rewards local officials and legislators with trips to nice places where they are propagandized in the philosophies of the far-right, small-government establishment. Koch foundations also heavily support ALEC.
Insofar as educating children goes, the unexpressed long-term aim of KPI and ALEC is to dismantle public education, and that process would get another push if the 2018 Legislature followed API’s plan.
Kansas’ dedication to public schools predate its statehood: the 19th Century Territorial Legislature decided that there must be a school within walking distance of every student. In 1966, the legislature and people approved a constitutional amendment requiring that that legislature make “suitable provision for finance of educational interests.”
The state school board and various governors and legislators have been arguing off-and-on since then, including the last 20 years, about what that means. At one point early in this century, the matter seemed to have been settled in a lawsuit, but during the 2008 recession the legislature cut back the court-ordered funds, leading to new litigation.
The court is now understandably fed up. In October, in its sharpest language yet, it reminded the state that for “most years between 2002 and 2019 … inadequacy (of funding) has been judicially declared to exist…. With that regrettable history…in mind … we will not allow ourselves to be placed in the position of being complicit actors in the continuing deprivation” of education.
That should be clear enough. Legislators must understand, even if KPI doesn’t, that evasion of constitutional responsibility is no longer an option, and that continued obeisance to KPI’s cut-taxes, shrink-government mantra would be a very poor choice.
The only viable alternative is a tax increase. Nobody loves that idea, of course, but if the public schools do not open next fall or a major constitutional crisis paralyzes the entire state, Kansans would not have any trouble identifying who is at fault. And it won’t be the people in the black robes, who are doing what the constitution requires of them and settling a dispute between two parties who agreed years ago that the court has jurisdiction to decide.
Davis Merritt, Wichita journalist and author, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.