Archive for Thursday, January 6, 2005

Lawmakers urged to look past politics

Supreme Court wants education to be core of school funding solution

January 6, 2005


— The first day of legislative sessions is usually reserved for ceremonies and rituals.

But Monday, when 165 legislators raise their right hands and swear to uphold the Kansas Constitution, it will take on added significance.

This time, the Kansas Supreme Court is watching to make sure they keep their promise.

The court recently ruled the Legislature had failed to fund schools to the proper level under the constitution and ordered it to increase funding by April 12.

"Inaction in the face of this order is unacceptable and invites further action of the court," Atty. Gen. Phill Kline said.

House Speaker Doug Mays, R-Topeka, who voted against tax increases for schools last session, echoed those sentiments, saying, "I think the sense of urgency is there. I think there is a feeling among legislators that this would be a session that deals chiefly with K through 12 education."

Lots of other issues will come up during the legislative session, but funding public schools will be at the top of the list.

"I think the court has sent a pretty clear signal that the Legislature is going to have to put more money into the school system," Rep. Paul Davis, D-Lawrence, said.

But how much and where the money will go are the big questions.

Rep. Tom Sloan, R-Lawrence, says the increase in school funding will require a tax increase. "I don't see any way around it," Sloan said.

About one-half of the state's budget -- $2.7 billion -- is allocated to public schools.

Alan Rupe, the Wichita attorney who represented school districts that successfully sued the state, said another $1 billion was needed.

He didn't just pick the number out of thin air, he said. In its opinion, the court cited a 2001 study commissioned by the Legislature. To meet the constitutional provision that there be "suitable" funding for schools, the state would have to spend about $1 billion more per year, the report concluded.

But Mays says the Augenblick & Myers study should not be considered the standard set by the court.

He said he had no idea what would be an acceptable increase to the court nor whether a tax increase would be necessary to reach that mark.

Districts shortchanged

There is pent-up demand for increased funding.

Since 1992, the base state aid per pupil has increased from $3,600 to $3,863. It was actually higher in 2001 at $3,870 before it was knocked back to the current $3,863 because of budget cuts.

The lack of state funding has hurt districts statewide, including Lawrence, which has had to make about $7 million in cuts over the past four years.

The lawsuit challenging the school finance system says that the state shortchanges school districts that have high numbers of at-risk students, minorities and students with disabilities. The court agreed.

The court also said the fact that many school districts are having to use locally raised tax dollars, originally meant for enhancements, to fund general education needs, was further evidence of the Legislature's failure to provide enough school funding.

"It is clear increased funding will be required; however, increased funding may not in and of itself make the financing formula constitutionally suitable," the court said.

Getting past politics

The court also said the Legislature's work on school funding needs to be focused on the actual costs of education instead of politics.

"The equity with which the funds are distributed and the actual costs of education, including appropriate levels of administrative costs, are critical factors for the legislature to consider in achieving a suitable formula for financing education.

"By contrast, the present financing formula increases disparities in funding, not based on a cost analysis, but rather on political and other factors not relevant to education," the court said.

Taking the politics out of education funding will be the most daunting challenge, Mays said.

"That will be the most difficult and time-consuming thing of all," he said.

In the past, shifts in school funding formulas that attach certain funds to special circumstances, such as low enrollment, have been fiercely contested.

Mays said the fact that lawmakers have just advanced past the November elections may help reduce political posturing.

"Let's face it," he said, "everyone in the Legislature is elected, we are now past the elections, especially in the Senate, so it takes a lot of the politics out of it. Now we can to a greater degree focus on the policy here."

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