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Archive for Wednesday, May 12, 2004

Bullock’s bottom line

State officials may not be able to get around the line Judge Terry Bullock has drawn in the sand on the issue of school finance.

May 12, 2004

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Just in case anyone thought Shawnee County District Judge Terry Bullock didn't mean business...

The judge left no doubt Tuesday about his determination to force change in the way Kansas funds K-12 education. Although some members of the Kansas Legislature still are thumbing their noses at the judge's plan to halt public school funding on June 30, it seems like a dangerous strategy to assume they can get around Bullock's order.

The order pulls no punches when it comes to Bullock's displeasure with the "mocking and disrespect" shown to the state's court system by its Legislature. While some legislative leaders remained dismissive of Bullock's Tuesday order because the case already has been appealed to the Kansas Supreme Court, Bullock pointed out they are ignoring "the fact that this Court did not act alone, but was in fact operating under a mandate handed down by the Kansas Supreme Court in this very case." The Supreme Court has indicated it wants Bullock to handle this case and isn't likely to let the state off the hook on an appeal.

Some of the most interesting text in Bullock's decision is directed at those who used fear of tax increases as an excuse to stymie legislative action on school funding. He cites Kansas Department of Revenue documents showing that tax cuts passed by the Legislature in the last 10 years forfeited nearly $7 billion in state revenue.

The revenue figures also provided an answer for those who ridiculed Bullock's contention that it might take as much as $1 billion a year to fix the school-finance formula. "By coincidence," he wrote, "a billion dollars is very close to the revenue dissipation brought about by the legislative tax reductions during the current fiscal year alone. In other words, the people of Kansas provided the funds needed to educate our children, it was the Legislature which sent them away."

In case they weren't getting the picture yet, Bullock also laid out very specific guidelines on how the state should restructure school funding to make it both sufficient and equitable. There should be no "wealth-based local funding options" and no "special 'weights' which favor some children and some locales over others." The funding formula can include differences from one district to another, Bullock said, but "any per pupil differences in funding must be justified by actual differing costs necessary to provide a suitable and equal education for that child."

"It's ridiculous," House Speaker Doug Mays, R-Topeka, said of Bullock's order. Mays and others continue to contend that a higher court will find that Bullock is out of line, but the "it's ridiculous" attitude that carried them through the legislative session doesn't appear to be a winning strategy in this case.

It's not known when the Supreme Court will rule on the state's appeal, but if the state hopes to have its public schools open in the fall, it may not be able to afford to wait. Bullock's requirement for the state to establish an equitable funding structure, then figure out how to fully fund it is a tall order -- one that will be difficult, if not impossible, to achieve by June 30.

Judge Bullock has taken a strong, principled stand on what the state should do to improve education funding in the state, which is more than the Kansas Legislature can say. If the state hopes to avoid a major education crisis next fall, legislators had better get their heads out of the sand and get busy figuring out a way to address Bullock's concerns.

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