Debate on how to best deal with the Kansas Supreme Court’s ruling requiring the legislature to craft a new school financing mechanism is likely to dominate lawmakers’ time during the 2018 legislative session.
Supreme Court justices gave the legislature a deadline to craft a new school finance formula. Many lawmakers and legal experts are unsure what happens if legislators fail to make the deadline or draft a finance formula that the Court rejects.
Sen. Dennis Pyle, a Hiawatha Republican, would like to take the biggest challenge out of the equation. He prefiled legislation to amend the state Constitution so the Kansas Supreme Court cannot close schools.
“Students’ achievement shouldn’t be thrown under the bus,” Pyle said. “Their educational interests should be priority number one, and closing schools is not in their best interest.”
Although the most recent decision didn’t expressly threaten school closures, Justices threatened to close schools in the summer of 2016, if legislators couldn’t come up with an additional $38 million in school funding. Lawmakers returned to Topeka for a special session in order to keep school doors open.
“I don’t think parents or patrons want their schools closed,” Pyle said. “My amendment is directed at preventing court-ordered school closure. Let’s let the people decide.”
In order to amend the state constitution, two-thirds of lawmakers in both Houses would need to pass amendment language. Voters would vote on the issue in an election. Pyle says his amendment simply says that only local school boards have the authority to close their own schools. His amendment calls for an election on April 17. Senate leadership has wide discretion in determining what bills have legs, and Pyle doesn’t know whether his proposal will even receive a committee hearing.
“If you’re in leadership and you do not want to take this step, I wonder what is your agenda?” Pyle said. “Are you wanting to consolidate schools?”
Consolidation was brought up on the Senate floor last year. Pyle is concerned rural schools may become targets in the school funding wars as a cost-saving measure. The Kansas State Board of Education estimated that the legislature would need to increase school funding by $600 million to meet the Court’s objectives, and there just isn’t money in the budget to do that without increasing taxes or cutting elsewhere.
“I’m saying let’s take court ordered school closures out of this mix and give it to the local school boards. That’s the first step that ought to be taken,” Pyle said.
An overwhelming majority of Kansas voters think lawmakers should consider a constitutional amendment to end the school funding wars. According to a poll commissioned by the Kansas Policy Institute, nearly 60 percent of voters want to vote on the debate. Of those surveyed, 21 percent said they’d like to see an amendment that makes the legislature alone for school funding levels. Another 38 percent said they would like a constitutional provision that sets minimum funding levels, reducing the Court’s ability to interpret funding. Only 20 percent of respondents said they’d prefer the Court to set funding levels.
Senate Majority Leader Jim Denning told an interim school finance committee in early December that Attorney General Derek Schmidt is working on language for a constitutional amendment, but when Schmidt testified before the same committee a few weeks later, he seemed more interested in addressing Article 6 of the state constitution than an amendment that would limit the Court’s authority to close schools.
“In the half century since the current language of Article 6 of our constitution was adopted, the people of Kansas have said little about its meaning while the Legislature and the Courts have spoken volumes,” Schmidt told members of an interim legislative committee on Dec. 19.
Pyle said he believes other options for ending the school funding wars should occur after voters decide whether Courts have the authority to close schools as his bill, SCR 1609, seeks to do.
“The centralizing dark cloud of court-ordered school closure is always used to hang over the legislature as a threat,” Pyle said. “Let’s stop this establishment-pushed extreme measure and get authority back to our locally elected boards and patrons. Let’s put them in the driver’s seat.”