Sabetha Rep. Randy Garber isn’t eager to put faith in justices of the Kansas Supreme Court to fix what ails Kansas public schools.
“I say the way to fix schools is to put prayer and the Bible back in and give it a chance,” Garber told peers on the House floor during debate on a five-year, $525 million plan to boost state aid to K-12 schools. “Our taxpayers don’t have enough money to fix it.”
The Republican said removal of prayer from public schools in the 1960s triggered a decline in standardized test scores, emergence of a rape culture among young men and skyrocketing birth rates among unwed youth. He said prayer in classrooms can be a salve for a society incapable of withdrawing from the drug scourge and lost in waves of violent crime.
The House pivoted away from Garber’s speech to vote 63-56 for a bill designed to answer an October opinion from the Kansas Supreme Court declaring state funding of education in violation of the Kansas Constitution.
Few House Democrats supported the bill, but the minority party in the Senate voted as a block with moderate Republicans to pass the measure 21-19. It spends twice what the Senate wanted and lacked dozens of senators’ targeted education policy pieces.
Gov. Jeff Colyer said he would sign it into law, and he expressed optimism the state could meet the annual investment increases without a tax hike.
“It’s a good-faith effort by the Kansas Legislature to come up with an adequate level of funding,” said Senate Minority Leader Anthony Hensley, D-Topeka.
Tortured debate in both chambers last weekend led to scuffling about obscure parliamentary procedure, exposed emotional baggage of broken promises, celebrated the art of filibustering and, in a new twist, raised allegations of stolen Senate documents.
GOP Sens. Molly Baumgardner and Jim Denning said notes they had taken during negotiations with the House were apparently pinched Friday night from Denning’s office at the Capitol. The unsolved mystery added intrigue to Baumgardner’s assertion the House chose not to negotiate in good faith and forced a flawed bill down the Senate’s throat.
“The House chose to stop negotiations,” said Baumgardner, a Louisburg Republican. “I told them, we would be fools as a Legislature if we signed off on a funding formula when we didn’t have an agreement from the plaintiffs that they were satisfied.”
Indeed, plaintiffs’ lawyer Alan Rupe said the $525 million package was insufficient in terms of total dollars and phased in the expenditures over too many years.
Rep. Brandon Whipple, D-Wichita, said nobody in the Capitol could say with a straight face that the bill would pass constitutional muster.
He voted against the bill and argued for more substantial investment in public schools to prepare children to compete in an international economy. The competition isn’t Oklahoma, Missouri, Nebraska and Colorado, he said, but China and India.
“There’s never been in our history a worse time not to be prepared to compete in the global economy,” he said.
After dust settled from weekend voting on school finance, an $80 million error was discovered in the bill. It must be addressed later this month when lawmakers return to Topeka.
Rep. Steven Crum, D-Haysville, had reminded colleagues a study commissioned by the 2018 Legislature showed the state’s public schools were 96 percent efficient in terms of using tax dollars. That far surpasses the ability of lawmakers to make good use of time, he said.
“That’s probably about, oh, I don’t know, 90 percent more efficient than we are up here,” Crum said.
Attorney General Derek Schmidt is responsible for submitting written arguments in defense of the bill by April 30. The Supreme Court scheduled oral arguments in May.
Sen. Ty Masterson, R-Andover, said the bill couldn’t be defended because it chose financial winners and losers. He said the tiny Hamilton district receives $745,000 from the state’s general fund, but the bill on the governor’s desk would reduce appropriations next year by $106,000.
“How’s that help these kids in Hamilton? I don’t know how you justify that,” said Masterson, who is convinced public school districts waste vast amounts of money. “We buy Suburbans. We buy big buildings. We buy iPads and Smart Boards. It’s the teachers that make the difference.”
If the court rejects the latest offering, the Legislature would have to return to the Statehouse for a special session during the summer.
A negative reply from the Supreme Court might generate momentum for a constitutional amendment designed to strip away the Supreme Court’s power to review school funding law and potentially reduce for the type of litigation on education funding that has roiled the state for decades. An amendment narrowly cleared a House committee, but hasn’t been voted on by the full House or Senate.
“I’m a firm believer that the judges are going to like this,” said Rep. Larry Hibbard, a Toronto Republican who voted for the bill. “No. 1, they want out of this one as bad as we do. If they don’t accept it, when we come back in July, bring that constitutional amendment with ya, and we’ll have a good discussion.”
Rep. Randy Powell, R-Olathe, said the Supreme Court improperly waded into legislative affairs by dictating financial boundaries of education funding. The justices stepped on toes of the executive branch by threatening to close schools if constitutional problems aren’t corrected, he said.
He suggested the Legislature consider calling the Supreme Court’s bluff.
“One of the problems here, as a legislative body, from my perspective — we haven’t had the collective backbone to stand our ground,” he said.