TOPEKA — An interim committee studying school finance finished its discussions Tuesday with an idea of the challenges it faces next year but without a clear picture of how it might devise a plan to satisfy the Kansas Supreme Court in an ongoing lawsuit over K-12 spending.
The court ruled Kansas’ K-12 funding plan unconstitutional in October and gave legislators until April 30 to come up with a solution, but the state’s attorneys want to see that solution by early March so they can build a case to defend it.
Legislators will have to move quickly next year to come up with a plan, but both tax increases and cuts to other parts of the state’s budget will be difficult to swallow. Some legislators have proposed amending the state constitution, which provides the legal ground for the court’s intervention in school finance, but Attorney General Derek Schmidt and several legislators cast doubt on passing an amendment instead of coming up with a financing plan.
Schmidt said he supported having a discussion about a constitutional amendment and laid out several possible approaches that would make “clarifications or changes to the duty imposed” on the Legislature to fund schools. Schmidt said even passing a constitutional amendment only to have it voted down on an election ballot would be beneficial. He said he’s working on generic amendment language with some legislators.
“Even that has benefit in reminding the participants in the system that even 50 years since, the way this has played out is really what Kansans want,” Schmidt said.
Schmidt, however, advised against passing a constitutional amendment to weaken the court’s authority and avoid having to increase funding for Kansas schools.
“A, because I don’t think it’s helpful, but B, because I don’t think it’d work,” Schmidt said.
Rep. Blaine Finch, an Ottawa Republican and chair of the interim committee, said he supported Schmidt’s advise not to “short circuit” the pending court case.
Finch said the interim committee was tasked with gathering information for legislators starting work on a school finance plan in January. Members of the committee examined arguments to be made in front of the court and the quick turnaround.
The Supreme Court has not said how much lawmakers need to spend on schools to meet Constitutional muster, but the Kansas State Board of Education and attorneys for the school districts suing the state have argued for another $600 million each year. Kansas added another $195 million and $292 million in the next two school years. Coming up with the money would require a tax increase or substantial 18-percent cuts to other functions of state government that agencies said would devastate their ability to provide services, like prisons, higher education and child welfare.
“We examined the spending and tax consequences and ramifications of trying to come up with $600 million, and I think everybody who was on the committee would agree they didn’t like either end of that extreme and that there is a real appetite to try to find something else in the middle,” Finch said.
Rep. Valdenia Winn, a Kansas City Democrat, said the committee work reinforced her knowledge as a member of the education committee and gave members a good idea of the resource situation in Kansas.
Sen. Carolyn McGinn, a Sedgwick Republican, said the committee was able to gather a considerable amount of information. She, too, didn’t support attempting to pass a constitutional amendment to avoid giving schools more funds.
“If there is a discussion about a constitutional amendment, I don’t want it to overshadow the work that we need to do to address the court and make sure that our schools are adequately funded,” McGinn said.