Opinion: Leave the Constitution alone on schools
A storm is brewing over equitable education funding in Kansas.
Last month, the Kansas Supreme Court passed down a decision upholding the state Legislature’s five-year school funding proposal of $522 million in new spending. The court required only that additional resources to sufficiently account for inflation be added and gave the lawmakers almost a year to carry out the new directive.
The justices did not compel all the additional funds to be implemented immediately. Nor did the court stop the flow of state education funding, which would have closed schools until a larger amount was put forward.
In the opinion of many Kansans, it was a decision that considered state coffers as well as educational needs. However, some legislators were dissatisfied and began again to call for a constitutional amendment that would give the Legislature sole power over school funding with no opportunity for judicial review to determine the adequacy of funding.
Rather than backing a constitutional amendment to increase legislative power over education finance, lawmakers might want to “lean in” and ask education leaders and the public to help them match education needs to state appropriations.
A constitutional amendment could set the stage for larger problems instead of ameliorating education issues.
Take, for example, the tempest that continues to rage in Oklahoma, a state where legislative control overrides the courts. This spring, amid teacher walkouts, sit-ins, a Pastors for Kids organization founded at First Baptist Church in Oklahoma City enlisted 95 pastors and hundreds of parishioners to support teachers. That plus a citizens’ march from Tulsa to Oklahoma City exacerbated political turmoil. Support for teachers was widespread. By April a law passed that raised teacher salaries, which were among the lowest in the nation.
However the conflict didn’t end; within a few weeks, a former U.S. senator led support for a petition to repeal the pay-raise taxes. The Oklahoma courts rejected the proposal on the technicality that not each of the separate taxes to be raised was listed on the petition. The storm continues.
What can Kansans learn from the Oklahoma story?
Depending on how the data is diced, the teacher walkouts resulted in schools closed, parents scrambling for suitable caretakers for their young and classroom learning at a standstill — costing families and the general public much unrest and the Oklahoma economy considerably more than the $22 million over several years that Kansas school districts paid in attorney’s fees during the Kansas court dispute.
Education funding decisions should be about how to provide 21st century education for students — difficult to imagine, since in 2017 school funding in both Oklahoma and Kansas was near the bottom of states experiencing a 10 percent or greater reduction in per student state spending during the past 10 years. Oklahoma was last and Kansas was listed fourth from the bottom.
Neither legislative primacy nor judicial oversight can end battles over school funding, but legislative primacy can, as in Oklahoma, be costly, lengthy, aggravate political contention and fail to nurture public education. Kansans would do well to leave its Constitution as is.
— Sharon Hartin Iorio is professor and dean emeritus at Wichita State University’s College of Education.