Topeka A bill to speed an appeal of a judge's order to overhaul the state's school-finance system was given preliminary approval Monday by the Kansas House after a partisan debate.
Republicans said the legislation would get the case before the Kansas Supreme Court, prompting a decision that could be used as the final say in the issue.
But Democrats said the GOP's strategy was to stall legislative action on putting more money into education.
"This bill is an excuse to not do anything about education funding this year," said state Rep. Paul Davis, a Lawrence Democrat.
The dispute stems from a lower court ruling that Kansas' method of financing public schools is unconstitutional. In that ruling, Shawnee County District Judge Terry Bullock of Topeka said the state was underfunding schools by as much as $1 billion. He also ruled the method of financing discriminated against minority students.
In a preliminary court order, Bullock gave the Legislature until July 1 to fix the system. The order specified the state couldn't appeal until after Bullock had ruled whether lawmakers corrected the system.
But Republican legislative leaders crafted a bill creating a narrow category for direct appeal to the Supreme Court in cases where state educational statutes have been declared unconstitutional. The bill, SB 324, was approved 40-0 last week in the Senate, but since then Democrats have been critical of the measure.
House Minority Leader Dennis McKinney, D-Greensburg, said the state Supreme Court already indicated the school-finance system needed work by reversing an earlier decision by Bullock to dismiss the lawsuit brought by low-income school districts.
In the January 2003 ruling, the Supreme Court told Bullock to rule on whether enough was being spent on schools and if minorities were being discriminated against.
State Rep. Martha "Marti" Crow, D-Leavenworth, said that by issuing a preliminary order and making a July 1 deadline, Bullock had complied with the wishes of attorneys representing the state who had asked the judge to give the Legislature time to prepare a remedy.
But state Rep. Mike O'Neal, R-Hutchinson and chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, said "people have the right" to get an opinion on school finance from the highest court in the state.
Davis also argued the legislation was unconstitutional because the Legislature was "trying to change court rules for one specific case."
But O'Neal said the Legislature had the constitutional power to determine whether the judicial branch should consider a specific case.
Richard Levy, a constitutional law professor at KU, said he thought O'Neal was correct on that point. "The Legislature generally has the power to prescribe the process by which courts decide individual cases and appeals, so the general authority of the Legislature would encompass whether and how an appeal can take place," Levy said.
The measure was advanced in the House on a voice vote and will face a final vote today. If approved, the legislation will go to Gov. Kathleen Sebelius, who has said she will sign it into law.