Kansas House speaker urges constitutional amendment to give Legislature complete power over school funding

House Speaker Mike O’Neal, R-Hutchinson, on Thursday urged passage of a constitutional amendment that he said would put the Legislature in charge of how much state funding schools get.

“The thing we need to get away from is this continuous cycle of litigation,” O’Neal told the House Education Committee.

He said the adequacy of funding for schools is something the Legislature should be in charge of because it has to weigh various needs against the availability of funds.

He said the Kansas Supreme Court in its 2005 school finance decision stepped over the line by requiring that the Legislature increase school funding. The Legislature increased school funding, but has recently been cutting schools, which has prompted another lawsuit.

But Rep. Jim Ward of Wichita, the ranking Democrat on the committee, said the court simply told the Legislature to fund schools at the level that the Legislature’s own studies said was necessary.

“What happened is the schools kept saying you (the Legislature) aren’t funding us enough to do what you are telling us to do,” Ward said.

Currently, the Kansas Constitution says: “The Legislature shall make suitable provision for finance of the educational interests of the state.”

O’Neal’s proposed constitutional amendment would change that to say: “The Legislature shall provide for the equitable distribution of public school funds in a manner and amount as may be determined by the Legislature.”

O’Neal said House Concurrent Resolution 5010 would prevent the Kansas Supreme Court from ordering the Legislature to increase school funding.

Mark Tallman, a lobbyist for the Kansas Association of School Boards, opposed the measure, saying that under the current constitutional measure, Kansas public schools continue to improve.

“This could weaken the constitutional provision that has served Kansas well,” Tallman said.

Kathy Cook, executive director of Kansas Families for Education, said, “Removing the requirement for a ‘suitable provision for finance’ effectively takes away the responsibility of the Legislature to provide adequate funding to meet the needs of students.”

O’Neal said disputes about whether school funding was equitable could still be considered by the courts under the proposal. But Education Committee Chairman Clay Aurand, R-Clay Center, wondered how that could be if the Legislature defined what equitable meant.

The committee took no immediate action on the proposal. Resolutions to change the constitution require two-thirds majorities in the House and Senate before they are placed on the ballot for voters to decide.