Area school superintendents are wary of the potential ramifications of a proposed amendment to the Kansas constitution that aims to allow only the state legislature, and not the courts, to decide the adequacy of public education funding.
State lawmakers recently debated whether to pass a resolution in support of asking Kansans to vote on a proposed state constitutional amendment that would give the Legislature full jurisdiction over determining school funding adequacy, while the Kansas Supreme Court would only be able to evaluate the fairness of state education funding.
The amendment debate arose in the midst of the Legislature's recent efforts to meet an April 30 deadline for passing a school funding bill that meets the court's adequacy requirements. Ultimately, the Legislature passed a bill to add $500 million in new school funding, and now waits to see if the court deems the funding adequate.
Since Democratic lawmakers are largely against the proposed amendment and Republicans are split, the chances of the resolution passing both chambers with the required two-thirds majority remain slight. Regardless, the resolution has been at the forefront of legislative discussions on school funding recently, as well as on the minds of area school officials.
At the Garden City USD 457 Board of Education meeting on April 2, board member Lara Bors discussed the proposed amendment and the possibility of the board taking an official stance against the amendment at the board’s next meeting, scheduled for Monday. She said she believes the amendment would be harmful.
“It deeply disturbs me on many different levels, particularly as a lawyer and a true believer in checks and balances, to be removing the third branch of government from the say of what another branch is doing. That’s the whole purpose of checks and balances,” Bors said at the April 2 board meeting. “I’m very concerned about the slippery slope that this could be creating should this pass.”
Renee Scott, USD 457 assistant superintendent, said the constitution, as it currently stands, provides checks and balances that have served Kansas well.
“The people of Kansas have placed education in the constitution as part of the state’s responsibility; this allows the courts to determine whether all branches of the government are meeting their responsibilities,” Scott said in an email.
Deerfield Superintendent Daniel Slack concurred with Scott, saying the removal of checks and balances would cause more harm in the long run.
“The Legislature would have full control, and if they think (school funding) is adequate now, that’s where it would be … (The need for school funding) has been heard for a long, long time, and I think that the only way that we’re at where we are now is because of the checks and balances at work…” Slack said. “I’m not a legislator, and I’m not an expert, but I’m affected by it and so are our kids. And kids are the most valuable asset that the state has.”
Larry Lysell, superintendent of Healy and Palco school districts, said he was worried that a more powerful Legislature would restrict the definition of adequate funding to a point where extracurricular activities would have to be limited or cut. In small communities, especially, he said that such measures would be destructive.
“In small towns … athletics in high school are a big deal. We have kids that wouldn’t be in school if it weren’t for sports. And it’s a whole other litany of things about how much better kids do academically if they’re in activities. Not just sports, but drama, forensics, speech, whatever it may be. Those kids are the best kids in school. Keeps some kids in school,” Lysell said. “So, if you had to start cutting things like that and either pay for them privately, some schools would lose everything.”
To Rex Bruce, superintendent of Sublette USD 374, leaving the definition of adequate school funding soley to the Legislature would be bad for Kansas schools.
“If we just leave it to the Legislature, we’re going to be in the same position Oklahoma’s in,” he said. “Everybody’s on strike, and (there’s) no funding increases for years and years and years … I think there needs to be a good check and balance with the Legislature and the courts to make sure it’s done properly.”
The proposed amendment could have a negative impact on western Kansas schools, specifically, Bruce said. He said that lawmakers who represent rural areas don’t have as much power as those who represent populous ones. If it were up to the Legislature, he said, the needs and voice of western Kansas schools would go unsatisfied and unheard.
“The courts will hopefully put an unbiased, nonpolitical look at what is needed based on the many funding studies that have been done and use that as their measure to what is an adequate education. And that’s what they’ve always done," Bruce said. "Sometimes the Legislature (doesn’t) use the facts and the studies to make their determination of what adequate funding should be."
Senate leadership pushed for support of the amendment as both chambers tried to finalize a school finance bill in the final days before lawmakers' April break.
Rep. John Wheeler, R-Garden City, called the amendment, and the Senate’s timing, “a hammer.”
“The timing of the constitutional amendment was very poor, and I believe it impeded the legislative process…” he said. “It’s still out there … It just didn’t help at all.”
Wheeler said he can understand part of the argument in favor of the amendment. He said the power to appropriate funds has always been legislative, and when the court calls for more money for schools, the Senate and House have a harder time finding funds for infrastructure and other necessary state expenses.
“But the other side is if you take the court out, then we smaller school districts like USD 457 are going to lose to the big districts because you take out equity,” Wheeler said.
Rep. Russ Jennings, R-Lakin, said he had not yet decided where he stands regarding the amendment, but is open to conversation. Earlier in the session, he voted to bring the proposal onto the House floor for debate.
Jennings doesn’t agree with Wheeler’s notion that the amendment would dismantle equitable funding for rural schools, saying under the current proposal that equity would still be resolved by the courts.
Jennings said he doesn’t think the Legislature would run unchecked under the amendment. He pointed to the fact that anything the Senate and House passes has to be approved by the governor, and that public elections decide which legislators stay or go.
“It’s not as if the Legislature isn’t accountable … I don’t know that checks and balances are completely eliminated when you have public accountability, a requirement of two chambers of the Legislature agreeing on something and the governor ultimately approving it. That’s an awful lot of checks and balances to begin with,” he said.
Jennings said he agreed that the timing of the proposed amendment, running adjacent to a court-ordered school finance bill, was bad. But at the end of the day, he said, the choice lies with Kansas citizens, since any proposed constitutional amendment would ultimately be put to a statewide vote.
He said the most important thing to consider was the content of the amendment itself.
“I just think it’s kind of early in this process to stake out firm ground at this point,” Jennings said.
Contact Amber Friend at firstname.lastname@example.org.