State constitution protects our schools



April 4, 2018 - 11:00 PM

A substantial segment — though perhaps no longer a majority — of Kansas legislators are still determined to stiff-arm the Supreme Court over school finance.

Their dual track strategy of passive and aggressive ploys are on display in Topeka this week.

The aggressive piece is a constitutional amendment asking us to surrender our only protection against the slow erosion of public schools by ideological purists on the political right.

Legislators backing HR 5029, introduced last week, would establish themselves in the constitution as the final and only arbiters of public school financial support, specifically declaring that the judicial branch has no say in the matter.

That would mean individual citizens who are not in the majority legislative party could no longer affirmatively assert in court their children’s right to an adequate education. They would have to settle for what’s provided or get out of Dodge — or wherever.

As is often the case in proposed amendments that arise out of ideological disputes, the one introduced last week reads more like political campaign sloganeering than constitutionalism.

Here’s a bit of background. For the political far right, the troublesome part of the existing constitution is this sentence: “The legislature shall make suitable provision for finance of the educational interests of the state.” That sentence was amended into the constitution in 1966, according to a paper written last year by the state Revisor of Statutes office. The reasons behind that declaration — and the key word “suitable” — are “unclear” half a century later, the paper said.

Ironically, that amendment also was designed to get around a Kansas Supreme Court ruling on school district consolidation, just as HR5029 is designed to nullify the court’s ruling on school finance.

Suitability — which the court defines as adequate money equitably distributed — has been the focus of more than 25 years of school-funding litigation. This month we arrive at another showdown moment, with the court having ruled last year that the legislature violated the constitution by failing the suitability test.

The proposed amendment adds 109 words — 108 of them superfluous — that write narrow ideological concepts into the constitution. Its proponents could accomplish their desire by simply changing the word “make” to “determine” and dispense with the ideological foot-stomping that would clutter the constitution with hackery.

But the amendment would remain an unacceptable idea.

The passive part of the passive-aggressive strategy is to slow-walk any budget increases, calculating how small an increase stretched over how long a time would meet the court’s standards of constitutionality.

That’s a guessing game the proponents cannot win. The court will not fail to recognize, for example, that $500 million over five years actually is a good deal less than it seems. Given normal inflation, the 500 millionth dollar handed over in 2023 would actually be only 86 cents of purchasing power.

As the session nears the last few days before the court-established April 30 deadline for presenting a constitutionally acceptable plan, it’s time for a coalition of realistic members to reject games of defiance and evasion and address the problem directly, which likely means increasing taxes.

The mantra of the anti-public education lobby is, “More money doesn’t improve public schools — just look at the enormous dollar increases since 1926 or 1996 or 2016.”

But be careful not to look at inflation, or population growth, or the reality of increasing special needs situations, or the economic standing of teachers versus the general population, or the intellectual demands of today’s world versus the worlds of 1926 or 1996.

It’s true that more money alone does not guarantee better student outcomes. But here’s something that is guaranteed: the status quo cannot produce the quality of graduates needed to meet what the state’s universities and businesses will demand of them in an increasingly complex world.