Surprising silence on court ruling

By Rod Haxton, editor

When the Kansas Supreme Court issued its latest - and not surprising - ruling last week on the inadequacy of public school funding, one thing was oddly missing.

There was remarkable restraint from ultraconservatives in the state legislature who have a history of complaining about an “overreaching” judicial branch or an “activist” court.

We’d like to attribute some of the silence to the last general election in which a number of ultraconservative lawmakers were sent home, never to return to Topeka again except as ordinary citizens.

Perhaps ultraconservatives learned a lesson from their failed attempt to oust members of the Supreme Court in order to gain a majority more in line with their political thinking.

Those events had some effect, but let’s keep in mind this is still Kansas. The weather can change quickly, not political philosophy.

What made the response to the court ruling particularly interesting was the way in which legislative leadership and Gov. Brownback appeared to not only agree with the decision, but were essentially telling the court, “It’s about time you got on board with the rest of us.”

House Speaker Ron Ryckman (R-Olathe) said the court decision “recognizes the work that is already underway in the Kansas House on a new school funding solution.”

Talk about turning lemons into lemonade.

Yes, work on a new formula is underway, but that wouldn’t have happened without pressure from the court. And if it was such a priority, why is the House only now in the process of creating a formula - two years after it froze funding with a block grant program?

Contrary to Ryckman’s half-truth, the Supreme Court ruling is a reminder of the legislature’s long history of failing public education, which is why the court has revisited this issue time and again over the last 25 years.

The legislature has routinely resisted its constitutional obligation to provide equitable and adequate funding. Block grant funding was another smokescreen which allowed the governor and ultraconservative lawmakers to temporarily run from their responsibility.

“The block grant system was designed as a short-term ‘timeout’ from a broken school finance formula that has been in litigation since the 1990s,” said Ryckman after the Court decision.

Once again, Ryckman is disingenuous.

It was ultraconservatives - not the Court - who determined that the old formula was “broken.” The problem wasn’t with the formula, but with the legislature’s lack of desire to fund it adequately.

It wasn’t a flaw in the formula that saw lawmakers reduce per-pupil basic state aid from a high of $4,400 in 2008-09 to just $3,780 in 2011-12. A broken formula didn’t dictate that funding remain frozen at $3,852 for the past three years.

The strategy of most Republican lawmakers has been to keep school funding at a minimum until forced to do otherwise through lawsuits and, eventually, court action. Block grants were more than a “timeout,” but were a means to reduce the state’s commitment to public education while buying time to address the legislature’s self-inflicted tax cut fiasco.

Senate President Susan Wagle put yet another spin on the court decision, saying that it “reaffirmed . . . legislators are the state’s chief policy makers and money appropriators.”

Not exactly.

 

The court has never told the legislature how much to spend - only that it’s not spending enough. Neither has the court delved into the specifics of funding policy.

But, in both areas, the court has reaffirmed they are the ultimate authority, which has always been a bitter reality many ultraconservatives find difficult to accept - especially when their objective has been to cripple public education and tout the virtues of private or charter schools.

Of course, ultraconservatives, including our governor, have never accepted responsibility for underfunding public education and the consequences. The Supreme Court, for example, determined that about 25 percent of the students in Kansas lack basic math and reading skills, which it says justifies the need for added money.

Brownback, on the other hand, claims it was “the old funding formula that failed our students.” His “fix” was to freeze school funding for two years so that every student in Kansas suffers.

We are in agreement with the governor when he says that success cannot be measured in dollars spent. But, more dollars do need to be spent.

Cutting basic state aid, as we saw in the seven years prior to the funding freeze of the past two years, is detrimental to our education system.

The court has once again told the legislature it has a funding problem that must be fixed. Lawmakers are going to have to do more than issue press releases which essentially say, “Thanks, but we got this under control.”

In sharp contrast to past years, we now seem to have lawmakers more concerned with the appearance of doing something without being forced to by the Supreme Court.

We aren’t assuming the role of official spokesman for the court, but we doubt any of the Justices care if they get credit for a better school funding plan. We’ll even go so far as to bet they’d be thrilled if every Kansas student was given the best opportunity possible for academic success.

That may hold a lesson for Brownback and ultraconservative lawmakers.

Do your job. Do what’s best for all the people of Kansas. Don’t worry about who gets credit.

 

That’s leadership.

Rod Haxton can be reached at editor@screcord.com

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