Suitable to whom?

Legislators defining a “suitable” education or curriculum for Kansas schools won’t necessarily keep the state out of court.

From a practical standpoint, we would like to think that every action taken by the Kansas Legislature would be “suitable” for the state.

However, that word has spawned considerable controversy in Kansas as it pertains to education funding — controversy that has landed the state in court before and may do it again.

Gov. Sam Brownback wants to avoid that and many Kansans would agree with his contention that defending state laws in court is a poor use of precious resources. To that end, in his State of the State address, Brownback invited legislators to better define “a suitable education.”

Like many Kansans, Brownback quoted a term that actually doesn’t appear in Article 6 of the Kansas Constitution, which covers education. The actual wording is that the legislature “shall make suitable provision for finance of the educational interests of the state.” The sentence even appears under Section 6: Finance.

So far, legislators have mostly tried to define a suitable education in Kansas by outlining a curriculum for schools. That issue is more directly addressed in Section 1 of Article 6: “The legislature shall provide for intellectual, educational, vocational and scientific improvement by establishing and maintaining public schools…”

The effort now seems to be to figure out how much education the state is responsible for funding. House Speaker Mike O’Neal ,who has been assigned to lead the task of defining suitability, indicated last week that he expects the state’s responsibility to be defined as more than reading, writing and arithmetic, but less than it is doing now.

Presumably, if legislators set a lower standard for the state’s responsibility for K-12 schools, some provision would be made to allow local parents and taxpayers to build on that financial base. Although “equity” isn’t addressed in the state constitution, providing equal education opportunities to students across the state is a guiding principle of the current school finance formula. Reducing the state’s educational responsibilities would have serious consequences for those efforts.

An alternative strategy would be to ignore the curriculum issues and focus on the “suitable provision for finance” phrase. The state might try to justify its expenditures on public schools by offering comparisons with what other states are doing or some other measure.

The bottom line, of course, is that no matter how the Legislature defines the state’s educational responsibilities or “suitable provision for finance,” the Kansas courts will have the last word on whether that definition is what the writers of the constitution had in mind. Unless legislators pursue a constitutional amendment to define these terms, it will be the courts’ responsibility to measure any statutes that are passed against the existing language in the constitution.

The word “suitable,” as it’s used in Article 6 of the Kansas Constitution, obviously could be interpreted in a number of ways. It will be interesting to see what the Legislature comes up with — and whether the courts agree.