As many lawmakers breathed relief over Monday’s school finance ruling from the Kansas Supreme Court, some renewed calls for a constitutional amendment that would avoid further litigation by placing sole authority on the matter in the hands of the Legislature.
The high court directed lawmakers to make their plan to phase in $522 million over five years constitutional by adjusting for inflation. Office holders and office-seekers sounded off with their ideas for how the state should move forward.
Kansas Attorney General Derek Schmidt called for the state’s school funding obligation to be settled by popular vote, but he praised the brief and unanimous court decision for its “positive attributes.”
“It affirms that the school-funding system is constitutionally equitable, approves of targeting new funding toward helping underperforming students, ensures Kansas schools remain open and operating this fall, flatly rejects the plaintiffs’ unreasonable demands for an additional $1 billion windfall, and provides a relatively clear path for the Legislature to reach what the court will consider constitutionally adequate school funding,” Schmidt said.
“Still,” he added, “compliance with this order will require the Legislature to appropriate significantly more funding starting next year. I continue to believe that Kansans should be given the chance to vote on a constitutional amendment to indicate whether this litigation-driven funding system is really how they want school-funding decisions to be made.”
Gov. Jeff Colyer, who signed the funding plan into law, said he looks forward to building on work the Legislature accomplished under his direction during this year’s session.
“When I became Governor earlier this year, I outlined my priorities for a school finance plan — specifically, one that would keep our schools open, get more money into the classroom and improve student outcomes without raising taxes,” Colyer said. “And we got it done.”
Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach, who is challenging Colyer for the GOP nomination in this year’s governor’s race, blamed Colyer for urging an influx of cash and failing to resolve the school funding issue.
He said the court will demand “more and more spending if we keep caving to them as Colyer did.”
“The business of funding schools belongs with the representatives of the people — not seven, unelected judges,” Kobach said. “The Kansas Supreme Court’s Gannon decision today illustrates how the Court is now micromanaging every dollar spent on education even down to calculating adjustments for inflation.”
Sen. Steve Fitzgerald, a Republican from Leavenworth who is running for 2nd District seat in the U.S. House, said he was pleased the court allowed schools to stay open but maintained the court is overstepping its boundaries. He accused the justices of protecting their legislative allies.
Like others who support a constitutional amendment, Fitzgerald said the court has no right to rule on the adequacy of school funding. The Kansas Constitution says “the Legislature shall make suitable provision” for public schools, and the court has interpreted that to mean adequate and equitable.
“That does not mean that the court gets to decide if there is enough money,” Fitzgerald said. “It means that the provisions for funding must be suitable. There are, of course, many possible provisions that could be made.
“At one time the sale of government land for the support of education was thought suitable. Property tax has long been thought suitable. A tax on gas and oil extraction would be suitable. A severance tax on diamond extraction would not be suitable as there are no diamond mines in Kansas, yet.”
Two Democratic legislators — House Minority Leader Jim Ward, of Wichita, and Sen. Laura Kelly, of Topeka — said they respect the court’s decision and promised to work toward fixing the problems identified in the ruling.
Kelly, one of the party’s leading gubernatorial candidates, said it is important to have a governor with a strong record of standing up for Kansas students, teachers and families.
“From my very first legislative session, I have fought to fully fund our schools,” Kelly said. “I supported significant new investments in 2005 and worked to improve early childhood programs. When Sam Brownback and Jeff Colyer made the largest cut to our schools in state history, I fought back. I will continue to work on behalf of our children.”
Ward said “the schoolchildren of Kansas were the winners today.”
“The Kansas Supreme Court reaffirmed the legislature’s constitutional responsibility to provide suitable educational opportunities for every child,” Ward said. “House Democrats are committed to working with anyone ready to solve the problems of school funding and end the constant litigation.”
Kansas Insurance Commissioner Ken Selzer, another Republican in the governor’s race, said schools need more accountability. He touted his experience as a certified public accountant and asserted the state can get more from every dollar it spends on education.
“We need to be more focused on preparing children to be reading ready before entering kindergarten,” Selzer said. “We also need accountability for achieving K-12 education performance targets and metrics. In addition, we need schools to align output with the needs of their local business community, by preparing graduating students to fill jobs.”
Jim Barnett, who is also seeking the Republican nomination for governor, said “the court got it right” by ruling an adjustment is needed.
“The time for judicial disparaging has passed,” Barnett said. “We need a governor who will lead us beyond in-fighting over school funding.”
Greg Orman, an independent candidate for governor, promised he would make school funding a top priority if elected.
“Schools are the economic engine of our state,” Orman said, “and I want every student, regardless of where they come from or which school they attend, to receive the best education Kansas can provide.”