According to an Associated Press (AP) report in The Daily Union, conservative Republican state legislators upset with past Kansas Supreme Court rulings that the state was not spending enough money on its public schools have proposed a measure that would add a new sentence to the state constitution’s education article declaring that the legislature has the exclusive power to set spending on schools. However, John Robb, attorney for the students and public school districts suing the state, contends that the proposed amendment, which is designed to stymie a pending education funding lawsuit, will not end the litigation and could face its own legal challenge.
The Kansas Senate Judiciary Committee plans to have hearings later this month on the proposed amendment. It was introduced last week, less than a month after a three-judge panel in Shawnee County ruled that the state is not meeting its constitutional obligation to suitably fund schools. Legislators would have to boost annual spending by at least $440 million to comply.
Robb said even if lawmakers put the measure on the ballot and voters approve it, his clients still have legal issues to pursue, including whether legislators were arbitrary in their decisions about school funding. Robb represents 32 students, their parents and guardians, and the Wichita, Hutchinson, Dodge City, and Kansas City, Kansas, school districts. He also said the proposed amendment explaining the measure for voters is so misleading – and, in his mind, designed to push them to approve it – that it opens the measure to being invalidated by the state Supreme Court. Robb did not rule out his clients filing such a challenge if the measure is placed on the ballot or even after its approval by voters.
Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Jeff King, who helped draft the proposed amendment, is skeptical that it is vulnerable to a potential legal challenge. He said the amendment, if adopted, would prevent the courts from stepping into decisions that the constitution meant to reserve for elected officials. “Whether the Legislature is making suitable provisions for the financing of education rests in the hearts and minds of Kansas voters and at the ballot box,” King said.
The education article says that the legislature shall “make suitable provision for finance” for the state’s “educational interests.” The proposed amendment would add a new sentence saying, “The financing of the educational interests of the state is exclusively a legislative power” and “shall be established solely by the Legislature.” A proposed constitutional change must be adopted by two-thirds majorities in both chambers and approved by a simple majority of voters in a statewide election. Supporters hope the measure will be on the ballot no later than the August 2014 primary.
The state Supreme Court has said the legislature is constitutionally obligated to finance a suitable education for every child, suggesting in 2005 and 2006 rulings that the state could face continual increases in spending. Lawmakers dramatically increased spending on schools after those rulings but backed away from their promises during the Great Recession, prompting the lawsuit by Robb’s clients.
The Shawnee County ruling cited the Legislature’s duty under the education article in saying that current school funding is inadequate. The state has appealed it, and it is not clear how quickly the Supreme Court will rule. But Robb noted that the lower court panel did not decide claims that lawmakers were arbitrary in the past or that their actions discriminated against some students. The proposed amendment, if adopted, “isn’t going to make this lawsuit go away,” Robb said.
King, who also serves as the state senate vice president, said the state’s courts do not typically order additional spending to remedy the other issues Robb’s clients raise. “We are letting the voters decide who has final say over appropriations for schools,” King said. The proposed explanatory statement says that a “no” vote would retain the current constitutional provision on education and that it has been interpreted by the Supreme Court as allowing it to order legislators to spend “whatever amount” for schools the court deems necessary.
Robb said the statement is misleading because in past rulings, the court said the state’s school funding system was inadequate and gave lawmakers time to fix it if they increased spending in line with a study the Legislature commissioned. The court did not make legislative decisions or appropriate money, Robb said.
Source: The Daily Union, 2/3/13, By John Hanna (AP)
[Editor's Note: In January 2013, Legal Clips summarized an article in The Topeka Capital-Journal, which reported that a Shawnee County District Court three-judge panel has ruled that the Kansas state legislature was failing to meet its K-12 school funding obligations under the state constitution. In a 251-page decision in Gannon vs. State of Kansas, the panel said the previously-set $4,492 per-pupil base state aid funding floor established by the Kansas Supreme Court may not be lowered.]