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Plan aims to end lawsuit

1/31/2013

By JOHN HANNA

By JOHN HANNA

Associated Press

TOPEKA -- Republican legislators in Kansas want to rewrite the education funding provision in the state constitution to end a pending lawsuit that threatens to force the state to boost spending on public schools.

The proposed amendment would add a new sentence to the Kansas Constitution's article on education, declaring the Legislature has the exclusive power to determine how much the state will spend on schools. Senate Vice President Jeff King, an Independence Republican who helped draft the measure, said he believes it would render the lawsuit moot.

The Senate Education Committee agreed Wednesday to sponsor such a measure before seeing the text. King provided a copy of the language to the Associated Press when the proposal was finished Wednesday night. Supporters plan to have it formally introduced today in the Senate.

King, an attorney, also is chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, and said his panel will have hearings on the measure next week. It must be adopted by two-thirds majorities in both chambers and approved by a simple majority of voters in a statewide election to change the constitution. Supporters hope to put the proposal on the ballot no later than the August 2014 primary election.

Many of King's fellow conservative Republicans have been frustrated by a string of court decisions during the past decade, including multiple rulings by the Kansas Supreme Court, requiring the state to boost its spending on schools. King said supporters of the measure want voters to decide whether elected officials will control education funding, as he and other lawmakers believe the constitution originally intended.

"The courts have interpreted the constitution to say they have the authority," King said. "It's time for the people of Kansas to put that debate to rest."

The proposal is likely to meet strong resistance from education officials, as well as Democrats and many moderate Republicans in the Legislature. In the past, they've argued such measures would allow the state to shortchange schools.

King said he wants to cut off the "endless cycle of litigation." But Senate Minority Leader Anthony Hensley, a teacher and Topeka Democrat, said the courts only have stepped in because of lawsuits prompted by the Legislature's refusal to adequately fund schools.

"They want to change the rules in the middle of the game, basically," Hensley said. "It's the ultimate cop-out."

The education article says the Legislature shall "make suitable provision for finance" for the state's "educational interests." The proposal would add a new sentence saying, "The financing of the educational interests of the state is exclusively a legislative power" and "shall be established solely by the Legislature."

The Kansas Supreme Court has said the existing provision means legislators must finance a suitable education for every child, suggesting in 2005 and 2006 the state could face continual increases in spending to ensure that public schools keep improving.

Lawmakers dramatically increased spending on schools after those rulings but backed away from their promises during the Great Recession.

That prompted a new lawsuit, resulting in a ruling by a three-judge panel in Shawnee County that the state must boost spending by at least $440 million a year. And, especially irritating conservatives, the judges criticized legislators for claiming to do all they reasonably could for schools while approving massive income tax cuts last year.

The state is pursuing an appeal, but it's not clear when the Supreme Court might rule. King said supporters of the constitutional change hope voters approve it before a high court decision. He didn't rule out a special election before August 2014.

King said he's also backing the measure because the courts order change in how education funds are distributed, for example, by ruling too much money goes to rural schools at the expense of urban schools.

"This is not an attack on public schools," King said.

Hensley said if legislators are frustrated, they should remember issues were brought to the courts by unhappy parents and educators.

"We basically have neglected our duty to fund schools," he said.