State Rep. Russ Jennings says he’s confident the Kansas Supreme Court will find a $525 million addition to school funding constitutionally suitable.
The remarks were given Saturday during what legislators hope will be the final Legislative Coffee event at St. Catherine Hospital, and were in response to a question issued by USD 457 Superintendent Steve Karlin.
Karlin asked local legislators what possibilities they see for the court’s determination in the wake of gamesmanship by legislative leadership, specifically in the Senate. He also asked if there is any possibility that schools will lose their funding after the anticipated ruling on June 30, following oral arguments by legislators scheduled for Tuesday.
“My sense of it is, it is likely that the court will find the amount of funding is constitutionally adequate,” said Jennings, a Lakin Republican and former magistrate judge in Kearny County.
Jennings said there could be concerns by the justices about the five-year period during which the additional funding would be phased in because they could deem it too long, but he doesn’t think the court will pull state funding for public schools, which presumably would result in widespread closures ahead of the beginning of next school year in August.
Jennings also said he doesn’t expect the Legislature to reconvene for a special session later in this summer.
He anticipates the Supreme Court to acknowledge the “good effort” by lawmakers at least as it relates to funding for the coming year, with the added possibility that the court may call for some adjustments to the plan during next year’s legislative session.
Rep. John Wheeler, a Garden City Republican and former Finney County attorney currently on the House Judiciary Committee, said there’s “always the possibility” that Gov. Jeff Colyer will call a “very quick special session.”
If the Supreme Court calls for more funding, Wheeler said, he expects lawmakers to push a constitutional amendment that would limit the court’s authority over funding disputes in the future.
Wheeler noted that lawmakers must take into consideration “every government function... across the board” in its budgetary considerations, but, he added, the Supreme Court is addressing the perceived shortage of school funding “in isolation... which is what’s creating the havoc right now that we’re in.”
After Wheeler asked attendees of the town hall-style event how they would feel about a constitutional amendment stripping the Supreme Court of authority on funding adequacy but not equity across state school districts, almost nobody raised their hand in support.
Sen. John Doll, an independent and former Garden City teacher, said several variations of such a constitutional amendment have been brought forward, including one that would forbid the Supreme Court from closing schools.
“Well, they can’t,” Doll said of the Supreme Court’s authority. “What courts can do is cut the money off. The schools themselves decide whether they close or not.”
Doll said he fully supports preserving the Supreme Court’s authority on adequacy and equity, because “I believe strongly in a three-branch government,” he said.
While the Supreme Court can’t set a dollar amount to determine the “suitability” standard set forth by the state Constitution, Wheeler noted that the Supreme Court only assumed authority over equity after the Legislature requested its assistance in a determination on equitable distribution of funding during the Montoy v. Kansas case that served as a precursor to the current Gannon case.
“Bear in mind that that power on equity was not given to them by the Constitution,” Wheeler said. “They have interpreted that. The only one that can make sure that they continue with that power in equity is the Constitution itself.”
If lawmakers agreed to pursue a constitutional amendment, it would be put to a statewide vote. Wheeler cautioned attendees that an amendment stripping the Supreme Court’s authority on adequacy could lead to arguments against its authority on equity.
“We have to be very careful about that,” he said.
Jennings said the discussion undertaken by lawmakers in an attempt to satisfy the Supreme Court this session demonstrated an unprecedented depth and logic.
“I think the court will ultimately recognize that,” he said. “Remember, it’s a lawsuit. It’s a lawsuit, and it’s layered with politics.”
The optimism expressed by Jennings is buoyed by a finding in the study released in mid-March by national school finance consultants Lori Taylor and Jason Willis.
The study was bemoaned by the same lawmakers that commissioned it because it called for up to $2.1 billion in additional funding to help Kansas reach its stated goals. However, it also noted that Kansas schools are operating at nearly 96 percent of their potential cost efficiency, on average.
“Of course, what they didn’t say is necessity is the mother of invention,” Jennings said. “When you have nothing, you try to find the most efficient ways to get done what you’re trying to get done, and I think it forces that.”
Still, Jennings called for more balance to the funding formula in support of student achievement. This year, he said, the Legislature “got closer” to a more strategic spending model that focuses more on early childhood development.
But regardless of salvaged optimism, Doll said teachers in Kansas rank 46th in pay on the national level, even amid high spending efficiency. Worse, a report released last year Kansas State Department of Education showed that pay for teachers in rural Kansas ranks lowest in the country, translating to more teacher vacancies in southwest Kansas than any other part of the state.
“We’re Kansas,” Doll said. “We’re better than that.”