TOPEKA — A group of legislative leaders Monday created an interim committee tasked with studying K-12 school finance after the Kansas Supreme Court again found the state’s education funding model unconstitutional.
The interim committee could make recommendations on education funding as well as draft a Constitutional amendment to reduce the Supreme Court’s authority over school finance. The Legislative Coordinating Council passed the measure unanimously on a voice vote.
The 11-member interim committee will be tasked with studying the latest Supreme Court decision in the ongoing school funding lawsuit, Gannon v. Kansas. They’ll also work on finding a way to end the “perennial” threat of school closure, said House Speaker Ron Ryckman, a Republican.
Supreme Court Justices ruled earlier this month the Legislature didn’t spend enough money on schools and didn’t distribute it fairly between wealthy and low-income school districts. It gave lawmakers until April 30 to come up with a fix and submit briefs to the court supporting their solution.
Senate Minority Leader Anthony Hensley, a Topeka Democrat, said he was concerned the committee would recommend altering the Constitution, which requires that the Legislature fund an education. That article has served as the legal basis for school finance lawsuit. Hensley said he would not support it, and he didn’t think it would get enough votes to pass.
Hensley said the court had ruled against the Legislature 12 times.
“If that was a football team, our coach would have been fired a long time ago,” Hensley said.
Some legislators take issue with the court’s involvement in what they see as a political decision. Following the most recent court decision, Senate Republican leaders criticized the court’s involvement, calling it a “clear disrespect for the legislative process.”
Hensley said he disagreed with that sentiment.
“They’ve done their job as a co-equal branch of state government, and now we need to do our job,” Hensley said. “We need to send them a bill … that has the money that provides for adequacy.”
Ryckman said instructing the committee to end the “perennial” threat was not an effort to suggest challenging the court’s authority, but he said he didn’t want to limit the interim committee’s options.
Senate Majority Leader Jim Denning said the court repeatedly had struck down school finance bills drafted by legislators the voters had selected.
“One solution would be to let the voters re-evaluate what ‘suitable’ means to them and take a vote on it,” Denning said.
Senate President Susan Wagle, a Wichita Republican, did not say whether she supported a constitutional amendment.
An amendment would have to pass both legislative chambers with a two-thirds majority vote. It would then be placed on the ballot, and a majority of voters would have to approve it.
House Minority Leader Jim Ward, D-Wichita, also urged appointment of some moderate Republicans to the committee and expressed concern it could end up a showdown between conservative Republicans and Democrats.
Republican legislators suggested hiring former Republican Sen. Jeff King for $100,000 to provide legal counsel to senators working on solutions to the school finance problem, but the vote failed with the help of House Majority Leader Don Hineman, a Dighton Republican.
Legislators then backed away from a discussion over hiring an expert witness for $200,000 and an attorney for the House of Representatives for $100,000.
Legislators hired King for $50,000 this spring to serve as counsel while they drafted the school funding formula that failed constitutional muster earlier this month. They also approved another $15,000 this summer to pay King to file a brief in support of the funding formula. King’s hiring this spring was controversial because of his vote in favor of a school finance bill later ruled unconstitutional and his work defending the state against a previous school finance lawsuit.