At long last the Kansas school finance litigation is over, at least for a while. Last week the Kansas Supreme Court dismissed the case that had thrown the Kansas Legislature into a turmoil and forced a special session as well as the addition of more than $500 million in new funding for K-12 education in our state. Now comes the time when, perhaps, with the pundits and partisans silent for a while, the case, its effects and its aftermath may be viewed more objectively.
The first thing that should be said is that the Supreme Court while not obliged to hear the case, certainly was within its legal right to do so. To take the case was an example of either political foolishness or bravery - depending on which side you find yourself - but to argue that the court exceeded its legal authority is just plain wrong. A constitutional question was raised by the case, and it is the state Supreme Court's job to decide constitutional questions.
Were there winners and losers in this case? In my opinion, there were mostly winners. Education got a needed infusion of cash. Was it enough? The schools say no; many legislators say yes. How well our schools and students perform during the next few years of receiving the added funding will tell us much about whether the level of funding now in place is enough.
For now, at least, we can say that education advocates were clear winners, even if they didn't win everything they wanted. The conservative anti-tax members of the Legislature and their supporters also were winners because they were able to provide the funding required by the court without raising taxes. Perhaps, this funding will require additional taxes at some later time if the economy takes a downturn, but for now, there are no new taxes required.
If there was a loser in this litigation it was the Supreme Court itself. The school litigation, along with some criminal law decisions, instigated a strong anti-court movement in Kansas. This movement was aided by Justice Lawton Nuss' unfortunate breach of confidentiality. In the long run, this movement may well be the most lasting - and damaging - legacy of the litigation.
Already, a federal lawsuit coming out of Sedgwick County brought by the self-proclaimed "Kansas Judicial Watch" has resulted in the nullification of several important provisions of the Kansas Code of Judicial Ethics on free speech grounds. Further, there is increasing pressure from anti-court groups to punish the court system by imposing a new, nonmerit based elective system for choosing Kansas judges.
It would be a shame if the positive legacy of the school finance litigation were accompanied by a lasting new anti-judiciary movement in Kansas. Those who supported educational funding in Kansas during the many years during which the litigation dragged on should now recognize that their job is not really done. If such litigation is to be possible in the future then our courts must be defended today. Let those who fought so hard for educational funding now also expend some energy in defending the court system that served them so well.