Opinion Columns & Blogs

Can traditional conservatism save Kansas schools?

Once upon a time not so long ago, Kansans could depend upon the traditional conservatism of their elected officials to avoid driving everyone over steep cliffs. That was before deaf and blind ideology got behind the wheel.

Now the state is barreling toward July 1, the date all public schools could close. And, frightening as it is to consider, more than a few people are OK with that.

They are the same people who refuse to even discuss expanding Medicaid, who believe that depriving children of decent food will somehow make their parents smarter, healthier and thus more employable, and who want legal sanction for their personal religious beliefs. Some have begun to call public schools “government schools,” a calculated pejorative scorning both education and anything related to government.

Those people, who currently control state government, must decide before July 1 whether they will defy a likely Kansas Supreme Court ruling rejecting their school-funding plan or look for a compromise or try to delay the inevitable past the November elections.

The Legislature has been to the edge of that cliff twice before – in 1992 and 2005 – but found the emergency brake of compromise. That, however, was before the drastic change in drivers.

Those episodes were not complicated by the impending retention votes on five of the justices this November, a shadow over all parties in the decades-long legal struggle over school funding.

It seems almost certain that within the next few weeks the court will declare that the 2016 Legislature’s school-funding plan fails the test of equity among large and small, rich and poor districts and is, therefore, unconstitutional. If the plan isn’t fixed by July 1, the court has said, the schools would have no legal authority to operate.

Then what?

Possibilities abound, some more likely than others and some of the black helicopter conspiracy variety. Among them:

▪  Defiance. The Legislature and governor ignore the court’s order. Response: The court could order individual school districts not to open (perversely making the school districts both defendants and plaintiffs in the same lawsuit), and/or the court could use the traditional remedy of contempt and send the highway patrol to haul the legislators and governor into court and possibly jail.

▪  Passive-aggressive. The Legislature struggles and struggles but simply can’t agree on a plan. Response: The court, always reluctant to dictate specific remedies, closes the schools. Or, equally reluctant to close the schools, the court mandates a plan and the legislators and governor whine about the court usurping their authority and, backed by millions of dollars from unidentified sources, focus on the retention vote, hoping that the problem would go away if four of them were removed and Gov. Sam Brownback picked their successors. It won’t.

▪  Federal appeal. In a world-class stroke of irony, the state tries to get the issue before a federal court as a delaying tactic and a way of portraying itself as a victim of extreme judicial activism. Probably won’t work, but this is, after all, an election year for every legislator: desperation time.

In the Kansas of 60 years ago, or even of 1992 and 2005, the Legislature would avoid the abyss. Even in this strange new political era, you say, our leaders aren’t capable of such irresponsibility? When did you stop thinking Donald Trump could not possibly be a presidential nominee?

Davis Merritt, a Wichita journalist and author, can be reached at dmerritt9@cox.net.