For four decades, Kansas’ district, appeals and supreme courts – more than a score of different judges – have consistently ruled that Kansas’ K-12 schools are not supported at the level of suitability required by the Kansas Constitution.
Distressingly, the state’s reluctance to meet its constitutional obligations rebounds most violently against ethnic minorities, non-English speakers and the children of poor families, the very people public education aspires to lift into the social and economic mainstream not only for their good but for the benefit of the entire state.
Last week, when a three-judge Shawnee County District Court panel, for its second time in two years, called out the governor and state Legislature, the leaders’ reactions were equally distressing though totally predictable.
Gov. Sam Brownback continued to vamp the idea of rewriting the funding formula, which is an evasion not a remedy since the formula is not broken. Senate President Susan Wagle, R-Wichita, fumed about the court’s “very political and antagonist posture” before she could possibly have digested the 139-page opinion. Others complained of “unelected, activist” judges, dismissed the court’s ruling as “a nonstarter” and fell back on the creaky rationalization that “money doesn’t make schools better.”
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Of course the subtext for all that anger and evasion is that Brownback and the far-right Legislature he orchestrated still cling to the notion that the state’s fiscal ship is about to come in; it’s just over the horizon, heading our way bearing the rewards of the long-discredited theory of trickle-down economics. The reckless and continuing 2012 income tax cuts mainly for businesses predictably blew a $1 billion hole in the state’s normal finances. Complying with the latest court ruling would add another $500 million or more to the annual shortfall.
The court was clear that although the fiscal dilemma was “self-imposed” through the tax cuts, “avoidance is not an option” and, quietly but firmly, declared it “stands always ready ... to enforce our Kansas Constitution.”
The first feint toward avoidance by the administration will be to appeal, but that can provide only brief respite because the Kansas Supreme Court probably won’t take long to find, for the third time in nine years, the funding constitutionally inadequate.
The Shawnee panel’s detailed, persuasive and restrained analysis demonstrates that money properly applied can, in fact, make schools better. It also points out that there is an “affirmative path to compliance” lying in “sincerity, practicality and reasonable accommodation” and urged mediation between the state and the plaintiff school districts.
That idea is reasonable – and certainly does not support Wagle’s description of a “political and antagonistic” court – but don’t hold your breath. Our governor and legislative leadership appear willing to sacrifice the education and futures of thousands of Kansans, as well as the economic and social stability of the state itself, to perpetuate their fantastical small-government, tax-free ideological paradise that excludes all but people like them and that, under a distorted idea of personal liberty, imposes no societal obligation beyond self-preservation.
Brownback and his legislators need to end their destructive denial, acknowledge publicly the logic of the court’s analysis, accept responsibility for the potential disaster that they have created and go to work on it without delay. Kansans should accept nothing less, and Kansas students deserve a great deal more than they have been getting.
Davis Merritt, a Wichita journalist and author, can be reached at email@example.com.