Your Turn: We must end incessant school litigation
The words of a recent guest column in the Lawrence Journal-World about the Kansas Coalition for Fair Funding were not surprising. It was a continuation of the intellectually shallow, fact-short screed about taxes, school finance and the Kansas budget. Certainly, reasonable people can disagree about these issues, but partisans rarely adhere to that theorem. And thus, I thought I was reading something from a partisan staffer.
Alas it was from a well-respected Wichita State University professor emeritus who I have known for decades.
I’ve not always agreed with Dr. H. Edward Flentje, but even when I disagreed with him, I found his arguments well-founded and reasonable. Not this time.
Now to the point. Dr. Flentje, probably intentionally, conflates the 2012 tax cuts with the current and ongoing school finance litigation. They have absolutely nothing to do with each other. The current litigation was filed around the day Sam Brownback was elected governor. To say the focus of the current coalition is part of an effort to maintain those tax cuts is fanciful, to be charitable.
The 15-word clause in the Kansas State Constitution that is the center of all of this was enacted in 1966. It took only a few years for the first lawsuit to be filed, and Kansas has been in court ever since. This is madness. Brownback was not governor when the original litigation was filed some 30 years ago. The Kansas Legislature developed the current finance formula in the early 1990s under the duress of a Shawnee County District Court judge. Brownback would not be governor for another 18 years. To continue to invoke Brownback’s name must mean the author simply can’t argue the merits of the issue we currently face. This is disappointing.
Last December, the Kansas Chamber Board of Directors approved the following language to be a part of our 2018 Legislative Agenda:
Support a constitutional amendment for the democratically elected legislature to have exclusive authority to determine funding for schools in an effort to eliminate endless litigation over school funding.
In my role as president and CEO of the Kansas Chamber, I’ve traveled the state visiting businesses of all sizes. The consistent refrain I hear from business owners and managers is that the constant litigation has diminished the effectiveness of our educational institutions and their ability to prepare Kansas students for post-secondary careers and post-secondary education.
In addition, I’ve had multiple conversations with educators, teachers, superintendents and building principals — many embarrassed about the constant litigation. They know that Kansas courts are the not the place to set our state’s education policy.
Ultimately this is about the process of how Kansas sets and finances education policy. We are competing not just with our neighboring states but all 50 states and many countries across the globe. There is a worldwide competition for jobs.
Because we are in a constant struggle regarding how much Kansas spends on K-12 education, we have not had substantive conversations that we should about the effectiveness and efficacy of our education systems and how we properly prepare Kansas students for their lives after high school.
Improving our education systems takes place because of conversations between employers, students, parents, educators and those setting education policy: the Legislature, the governor, local boards of education and the state board of education.
These conversations simply cannot take place between all the interested parties mentioned and the state’s judicial branch.
The chamber’s board of directors and members across the Kansas business community recognize the importance of a well-educated and trained workforce. But they also desire a competitive business climate. The endless litigation over school funding places the state at risk of being able to have a balance of a competitive tax climate and providing for the essential services required outside of the K-12 education system.
The framers of our national and state constitutions understood that the power to tax and appropriate funds must be placed in the hands of the Legislature, the governing body of the people. The Kansas Coalition for Fair Funding supports a constitutional amendment that will re-establish this fundamental principle of democracy and will end the continuous cycle of litigation.
— Alan Cobb is the Kansas Chamber president and CEO.