More than a third of all Kansans live within 60 miles of Kansas City. More than half of Kansans live within 60 miles of either Kansas City or Wichita.
Those are demographics that western Kansans ought to keep in mind as the state considers a constitutional amendment to solve long-standing school-funding issues.
A conglomeration of business groups wants to bar anyone from going to court to challenge the Legislature’s school-funding decisions. They are working with legislators to amend the state constitution.
If they succeed, metro-centric, eastern Kansans will decide how much money will be spent on western Kansas schools. The Legislature could, theoretically, shut off funding for every school district west of, say, Great Bend, and then deny Kansans recourse in the courts.
OK, nothing that dastardly would happen. But the amendment erodes basic rights and puts rural Kansas at risk.
The legislation reads in part: "The determination of the total amount of funding that constitutes suitable provision for finance of the educational interests of the state is exclusively a legislative power."
It also states: “No court, or other tribunal, established by this constitution or otherwise by law shall alter, amend, repeal or otherwise abrogate such power, nor shall such power be exercised by, either directly or indirectly, by any such court or other tribunal. “
Undoubtedly, we are all tired of the long battles over school funding. We are frustrated with the courts, with lawmakers and with schools.
But the solution being pushed through the Legislature is dangerous, especially for western Kansas.
That’s why it’s stunning that groups such as the Kansas Farm Bureau and Kansas Livestock Association have joined with the state Chamber of Commerce and other business groups to push the constitutional amendment through the Legislature.
It’s not necessary to view eastern Kansans as villains to understand why rural and western Kansas communities are risking their futures with this constitutional amendment.
All lawmakers are champions first for the school districts in their own legislative districts. They may be pro-education and want additional funding for all students, but their own school districts are their priority.
Those lawmakers are chosen by voters based on population. With every U.S. census and subsequent redistricting, western Kansas and rural parts of the state lose representation because the state’s population is shifting east, mostly around Johnson and Sedgwick counties.
The Wichita Eagle recently noted that according to U.S. Census estimates, only 17 of Kansas’ 105 counties gained population between 2010 and 2017. Most of the growth was around the state’s two largest metro areas.
Rural and western Kansas counties aren’t oblivious to this trend. Among the assets that many use to keep young families and attract new residents are schools.
Smaller schools appeal to many families, and some are able and willing to make their home in small towns or in rural areas. The numbers of such families aren’t sufficient to reverse the overall trend, but they help sustain many communities.
The strain on education spending will continue, regardless of the constitutional amendment. And lawmakers will again and again be tempted to reduce spending for western Kansas to serve the greater population in the east.
They might force consolidation by tying funding to minimum district enrollments. They could put additional limits on transportation funding. And so on.
And it’s possible that the funding side of the equation also could shift — toward more property tax.
The KLA and Farm Bureau are likely betting that a constitutional amendment would mitigate the need for higher property taxes. But nothing in the proposed amendment would keep a metro-centric Legislature from shifting even more of the cost of schools to farmers through higher property taxes. That remedy already has been floated more than once among eastern Kansas lawmakers.
Few Kansans enjoy the ongoing fights over funding schools. But the proposed amendment offers western Kansans a solution that is much, much worse than the problem they had hoped to solve.
A native of Garden City, Julie Doll is a former journalist who has worked at newspapers in California, Indiana and New York, as well as across Kansas.