Ahead of Kansas primaries, conservatives renew push for constitutional amendment on school finance

photo by: Nick Krug

Kansas Statehouse in Topeka, February 2014.

TOPEKA — Conservative Republicans in Kansas are renewing their push for a constitutional amendment limiting the authority of courts to rule on school finance cases, putting that issue front and center six weeks ahead of the Aug. 7 Republican and Democratic primaries.

Their renewed push comes in response to a Kansas Supreme Court ruling Monday that said the school funding plan that lawmakers approved in the 2018 session still falls short of the Kansas Constitution’s requirement to provide adequate funding for public schools.

Kansas House Speaker Ron Ryckman, R-Olathe, on Tuesday added his name to the list of lawmakers calling for a constitutional amendment to limit the Kansas Supreme Court’s authority over school finance issues.

“The court’s decision yesterday ensures that decades of school finance litigation will continue,” Ryckman said in the statement. “This decision undermines the legislature’s role in funding the core functions of government. It is vitally important that the people of Kansas direct how their tax dollars are prioritized for our students and it appears that a Constitutional Amendment is the only way to give control back to the people.”

In April, the House Judiciary Committee advanced a proposed amendment that would have given the Legislature exclusive authority to decide what constitutes “adequate” funding for public schools and taking away the authority of courts to review such decisions. But Ryckman never brought that proposal to the floor of the full House for debate.

Another amendment was proposed in the Kansas Senate, but it died in committee.

On Monday, the Kansas Supreme Court issued its sixth ruling in the long-running lawsuit Gannon v. Kansas, saying the school funding plan that lawmakers approved in 2018 phasing in over five years a $522 million increase in annual K-12 school funding was still not constitutionally adequate.

Although the court agreed with the Legislature’s target figure for how much additional money is needed, it said lawmakers failed to account for inflation costs during the phase-in period.

The justices said the state could go forward with the first year of the plan, but it directed lawmakers to address the inflation issue during the upcoming 2019 legislative session that begins in January.

Officials at the Kansas State Department of Education said Tuesday morning they were still trying to determine how much additional money it would take to comply with the court’s order.

Among the four major Republican candidates running for governor, Kris Kobach, the current secretary of state and arguably the most conservative in the field, was the only one who expressly called for a constitutional amendment.

“The business of funding schools belongs with the representatives of the people — not seven, unelected judges,” Kobach said in a statement Monday. “The Kansas Supreme Court’s Gannon decision today illustrates how the Court is now micromanaging every dollar spent on education even down to calculating adjustments for inflation.”

A number of other conservative lawmakers criticized Monday’s ruling as well, including Senate President Susan Wagle, R-Wichita, who has also supported a constitutional amendment limiting the court’s authority in school finance cases.

“Today the unelected bureaucrats of the Kansas Supreme Court chose to continue with the endless cycle of school litigation, leading us down the road to an unavoidable tax hike,” Wagle said in a statement Monday. “When Kansas is on par with (U.S. House Minority Leader) Nancy Pelosi’s California for sky-high property taxes and families are fleeing the state, we can thank the Kansas Supreme Court.”

Sen. Steve Fitzgerald, R-Leavenworth, who is seeking the GOP nomination for the 2nd District congressional seat, also criticized the court.

“While the Court might address equity problems, e.g., state aid to school districts being distributed improperly, the Court has no right to make rulings on the adequacy of school funding. That is the sole jurisdiction of the Legislature,” Fitzgerald said in a statement.

A constitutional amendment requires a two-thirds majority vote in both chambers of the Legislature — 84 votes in the House and 27 in the Senate — followed by a majority of votes in a statewide general election.

Kansas House Minority Leader Jim Ward, of Wichita, said he believes it is mathematically impossible for supporters of an amendment to reach that threshold.

“I’d say right now, this is politics,” Ward said in a phone interview Tuesday. “I can tell you with almost absolute certainty that no Democrat will vote to take away a child’s right to a suitable educational opportunity. Nor will we vote to change the separation of powers and take away the court’s legitimate power to review legislative enactments for constitutionality. It’s just not going to happen.”

Democrats currently hold 40 seats in the 125-member House, and the Republican caucus is closely divided between conservatives and moderates, who generally support increased funding for public schools.

All 125 seats in the House are up for election this year. Democrats and moderate Republicans are hoping to build on the gains they made in the 2016 election, while conservatives are hoping to regain some of the ground they lost two years ago.


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