TOPEKA — Senators and representatives plunged into conflict Thursday about placement on statewide ballots of a constitutional amendment countering the Kansas Supreme Court’s observation public schools could be shut down absent correction of school finance inadequacies.
A series of special-interest organizations supportive of K-12 public schools serving 460,000 students expressed skepticism about advancing an amendment to the Kansas Constitution during a special session of the Legislature next week.
Two conservative organizations, Kansas Policy Institute and the Kansas Chamber, offered testimony in support of putting an amendment on the November ballot to restrain the Supreme Court.
“The constitution must be amended to permanently resolve the litigation cycle and get the focus back in the classroom where it belongs,” said KPI representative David Dorsey.
He said existing language in the constitution — adopted 50 years ago — mandating the state provide “suitable” public education ought to be stricken to make it nearly impossible for plaintiff school districts to advance lawsuits on school funding. He proposed a second amendment to guarantee a certain level of state aid to districts, but if academic goals weren’t met, the students would be given vouchers to attend schools of his or her choice.
Legislative staff drafted a pair of constitutional amendments modeled on a state law forbidding the judicial branch from blocking distribution of $4 billion in state education funding and setting the stage for a shutdown. This 2005 anti-closure law, a byproduct of the last special session on education funding, would be modified to prevent the legislative and judicial branches from locking down schools in the future.
Mark Tallman, who spoke on behalf of three associations serving school board members, administrators and superintendents, said a Supreme Court order pulling the plug on schools would be detrimental to all students. He questioned necessity of rewriting the constitution based on political response to the latest school-finance litigation.
“The people of Kansas placed the requirement for suitable finance of the educational interests of the state in the state constitution precisely in order to provide a higher standard than ordinary legislative majorities,” Tallman said. “A constitutional right or requirement that cannot be enforced is no right at all.”
In May, justices of the state’s highest court ruled inequities remained in state aid and those ought to be resolved by June 30. Gov. Sam Brownback and the Legislature answered by ordering a special session scheduled to start June 23.
The immediate constitutional flaw could be corrected with infusion of $38 million, but an extra $12 million would be necessary to hold harmless other districts in the state. The issue at hand centers on equity of state spending to education.
The Supreme Court hasn’t ruled yet on the adequacy of state funding, a potentially more expensive conflict raised when a handful of school districts filed suit against the state.
In advance of the election-year special session at the Capitol, members of the House and Senate Judiciary committees got together to search for consensus on imposition of a constitutional rebuttal blocking school closures, as well as ideas for meeting the financial equity issue. The group of legislators planned to reconvene today.
A state constitutional amendment requires backing by two-thirds of House and Senate members. If attained, the language moves to a statewide ballot. It requires a simple majority of Kansas voters for approval.
No politician or lobbyist on the first day of debate went on record in favor of locking schoolhouse doors, but evidence emerged of deep division among legislators about inserting a no-closure constitutional provision on ballots in November.
“There are a lot of people on this committee tired of litigation,” said Rep. Annie Kuether, D-Topeka. “Doesn’t this just invite more litigation?”
Hutchinson Rep. Jan Pauls said consideration could be given to changing state law so the school amendment could be added to the August primary ballot.
The Republican said a complicating factor was federal law prescribing the minimum time given to vote by mail ballot for Kansans in the military or living overseas. Apparently, that deadline was Thursday.
“I know we’ve been out of compliance with that before,” Pauls said. “In theory, if the Legislature wanted to, we could change that date.”
Rep. Fred Patton, R-Topeka, said the Legislature had no business drafting constitutional amendments in a hastily called special session and in the middle of primary campaigns for every House and Senate seat.
“If we’re going to do it, it should be done during the regular session,” Patton said.
Sen. Julia Lynn, an Olathe Republican, expressed frustration with the Supreme Court moving the target on public school finance.
“How much is enough? What is the number? Every time we put a number on it, it’s never enough,” Lynn said.
Kansas legislative researchers could find only one instance — New Jersey, in 1975 — when a state supreme court forced closure of public schools. That state’s schools remained closed for eight days. In ongoing litigation in Washington state, the court found the state in contempt before ordering a fine of $100,000 per day.