TOPEKA — Two Democratic candidates for governor questioned the merit Tuesday of a business and farm coalition invested in lobbying for a constitutional amendment crafted to minimize the Kansas Supreme Court footprint in school funding disputes.
The Kansas Coalition for Fair Funding, led by the Kansas Chamber of Commerce, Kansas Farm Bureau, Kansas Livestock Association and Kansas Contractors Association, plan to invest political and financial resources in adoption of an amendment to the Kansas Constitution that would "resolve the state's ongoing battle over education funding."
A similarly named entity, Schools for Fair Funding, has represented Kansas public school districts for years in legal challenges of the state's approach to funding public education. In a series of rulings, the state Supreme Court has found the system to be unconstitutional. The 2018 Legislature and Gov. Jeff Colyer have an April 30 deadline to address flaws.
H.J. Swender Jr., representing coalition member American Warrior based in Garden City, said frustration with the high court and proposals to add hundreds of millions of state tax dollars to K-12 school districts convinced the coalition to step into the fray.
In the past, the construction lobby has complained about erosion of state transportation funding due to budget shortfalls, and farm groups have fretted about potential property tax hikes.
"As business and community leaders, we know that it sometimes takes tough conversations in order to find common ground and resolve differences,” Swender said. "A constitutional amendment remains the best way to make sure our schools and other essential services are not neglected.”
Sen. Laura Kelly, a Topeka Democrat campaigning for governor, said the coalition was attempting to generate political conflict between education advocates and business interests.
"I'm really disappointed that various interest groups are sort of pitting education against business, against agriculture," she said. "I think it's unnecessary and will divide us rather than unite us around a common cause of putting Kansas back together again."
The formation of a lobbying coalition on behalf of an amendment modifying the state's constitutional commitment to educating children in public schools is a mistake, said House Minority Leader Jim Ward, D-Wichita.
"It's frustrating we're spending money and energy on changing the constitution rather than educating children," said Ward, who is also seeking the Democratic Party's nomination for governor.
Michael White, who represents the Kansas Contractors Association, said the state ought to maintain large investment in K-12 education, but shouldn't do that to the detriment of highway infrastructure and other sectors of the economy.
“Right now, more than half of every taxpayer dollar goes to K-12 schools, and we believe strongly in maintaining that standard,” White said. “Education is — and should be — a top priority in the state budget.”
The coalition supports House Concurrent Resolution 5209. It would declare decisions about adequate funding of schools to be the domain of the Kansas Legislature. At the same time, it would say the Kansas Supreme Court would be limited to deciding whether money was distributed equitably among districts.