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Archive for Sunday, May 14, 2006

School subplots

Political posturing over the state’s new school finance plan is far from over.

May 14, 2006

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The votes have been cast on a plan to fund K-12 education in Kansas, but it seems the political posturing still is in full swing.

The Kansas Legislature ended its 2006 session Wednesday after reaching agreement on a plan to increase funding for Kansas public schools by $466.2 million during the next three years. Whether the Legislature has finished its work for this year or will be called back into session this summer, however, remains to be determined.

A case challenging the constitutionality of the state's school finance law remains open before the Kansas Supreme Court. If the court decides that legislation doesn't raise enough money or doesn't distribute it fairly, lawmakers may be forced to return to work.

While the state awaits the court's decision, several subplots to this drama are playing out.

Gov. Kathleen Sebelius has committed to signing the bill, which she praised as "a good faith effort to follow the guidelines of the legislative cost study." She is choosing to accentuate the positive, such as the fact that legislators passed a multiyear plan.

This plan is not everything Sebelius wanted, but she is trying to give it a good sendoff. Given the current animosity between the legislative and the judicial branches, Sebelius doesn't want to give legislators an opportunity to say she was less than supportive of their effort or was inviting justices to reject the plan.

In the meantime, a few legislators continue to press their case against Supreme Court Justice Lawton Nuss. The Kansas House has launched an investigation of Nuss' lunch with two Republican senators at which they acknowledge having a brief discussion about the school finance law. State Rep. Tim Huelskamp formally called Friday for Nuss to resign from the court.

It doesn't seem too cynical to suspect that legislators pursuing the Nuss matter may be trying to weaken the court's hand or intimidate it into being more receptive to the school finance plan, which seems to fall short of the court's directives in a number of ways.

The court ordered the Legislature to base its funding of public schools on the actual cost of educating Kansas youngsters. To establish that cost, the Legislature ordered a new study by its own Division of Post Audit. Then it proceeded to pass a budget increase that not only is smaller than what Post Audit called for but also is spread over three years.

The plan also allocates $22.7 million to aid school districts with large numbers of at-risk students; Post Audit had called for $53.8 million. And, rather than directing the money to four urban school districts, as Post Audit recommended, legislators spread it over 37 school districts in the state.

The bottom line, that surely will not escape the Supreme Court's notice, is that the Legislature asked its own researchers to determine the actual cost of educating Kansas students and then decided not to follow their advice. The final plan approved by legislators was determined by what was politically possible, a basis that the Supreme Court had specifically rejected as a way to determine how much funding schools should receive.

Maybe it's unreasonable for the court or anyone else to think any legislative issue can be decided on a basis other than political expediency. The school finance plan approved by legislators certainly has some positive aspects, but it also has some glaring flaws. It's now up to the Supreme Court to decide whether the positives are enough to satisfy the Legislature's constitutional duty to fund the state's public schools.

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