The Kansas Senate failed to generate the minimum two-thirds majority Friday to advance a constitutional amendment blocking closure of public schools by the state’s judicial or legislative branches as a remedy in litigation on school finance issues.
The 26-13 vote fell one short of the number required to move the amendment, which drew sharp criticism from Democrats and surprising opposition among Republicans. All three members of the Shawnee County delegation — Democrats Laura Kelly and Anthony Hensley, Republican Vicki Schmidt — voted against the amendment.
The House hadn’t taken up the resolution during the special session on school funding, but assembling the necessary majority in the House for altering the Kansas Constitution was expected to be a greater challenge.
Advocates sought to insert the constitutional amendment on November ballots statewide. These ballots also include questions on retention of five Kansas Supreme Court justices.
This education amendment, similar to an 11-year-old statute designed to restrain the courts, was drafted by Sen. Jeff King and endorsed by conservative Republicans irked by the Supreme Court’s rulings that a portion of state aid to K-12 public schools failed to meet constitutional muster.
“Let’s let the people have a voice. Let’s take this nuclear option off the table,” said King, the Independence Republican who urged passage of the iron-clad barrier to locking schools serving nearly 500,000 children. “It prohibits the closure of schools during school finance litigation.”
Senate President Susan Wagle, R-Wichita, said she was certain the amendment would be widely supported by Kansas voters if placed on ballots.
Skeptics of the amendment, primarily Democrats, framed the amendment campaign as another GOP strategy to undermine the judicial branch. The amendment is work of legislators upset by court decisions on school funding, abortion, capital punishment and other issues, said Sen. David Haley, D-Kansas City.
“Sparingly should our Constitution be changed. It’s just bad form,” Haley said. “I’d hope, not to be belittling, we’d put on big boy and big girl pants.”
Hensley, the Topeka Democrat and Senate minority leader, said lawmakers in the special session ought to dedicate themselves to meeting a clear mandate in the Constitution to suitably finance public education.
“This resolution, I believe, falls into the definition of red herring,” Hensley said.
Placement of the amendment on the state’s general election ballot in November would mean that passage of constitutional reform wouldn’t influence the Supreme Court’s immediate options to compel lawmakers to resolve an inequity in state aid among wealthy and poor districts by June 30.
The Supreme Court hasn’t moved to close the state’s public schools, but raised the prospect in a written opinion as a warning to lawmakers who might be inclined to defy the court.
The Senate brushed aside a recommendation by Sen. Marci Francisco, D-Lawrence, to change the amendment’s explanatory statement that would be appended to ballots.
Francisco, Hensley, Kelly and Haley joined three other Democrats to vote against the constitutional provision. The Senate’s eighth Democrat, Sen. Pat Pettey, of Kansas City, Kan., was absent.
Republicans voting against the amendment were Sens. Elaine Bowers, of Concordia; Dan Kerschen, of Garden Plain, Jeff Longbine, of Emporia; Carolyn McGinn, of Sedgwick; Kay Wolf, of Prairie Village; and Schmidt, of Topeka.