The Joplin Globe, Joplin, MO

Opinion

January 2, 2014

Other Views: Funding crisis

— A decision by a three-judge panel hit with a boom on Jan. 11, 2013, and has reverberated ever since in Kansas political and educational circles.

Once again, a court ruled that the Kansas Legislature has violated the state constitution by underfunding public schools. If the judicial panel’s decision is allowed to stand, it could set off a constitutional crisis in addition to worsening the state’s already perilous budget situation.

A reversal, though, would send the wrong message to lawmakers and possibly encourage them to invest even less in educating children.

We probably won’t have to wait long for the completion of the next chapter. The Kansas Supreme Court, which heard the case on appeal, is expected to make public its ruling early in 2014.

The Legislature’s failure to adequately pay for public education is a long-running Kansas story. The Supreme Court in 2005 ordered lawmakers to put more money into school financing. Conservatives bitterly decried the ruling, but finally settled on increasing allocations for three years until they were funding schools by an additional $755 million annually.

The state kept its word for two school years. Then the recession hit. Starting in the 2009 school year, Kansas cut funding to its elementary and secondary schools by more than $500 million. After rising to a high of $4,438 per pupil in the 2008-09 school year, base state aid is now $3,812.

Such is the lack of confidence in Kansas’ will and ability to properly fund public education that when Gov. Sam Brownback recently said he would like to move to universal all-day kindergarten, people instantly wondered what other essential classroom services would be cut to pay for full-day classes.

Assuming the Supreme Court upholds the district court panel’s ruling, as expected, the Legislature would have to choose compliance or defiance.

To reach the level of funding agreed upon in 2005 would cost an additional $450 million a year. That would require the Legislature either to cut too deeply into the reserve fund or to take more money from other underfunded services, such as colleges and universities or prisons.

Some legislative leaders have said they would ignore an order from the state’s high court, trotting out the old argument that the judiciary has no business telling lawmakers how to spend money.

But the Kansas constitution says that the legislature must make “suitable provision” for financing public schools, and the business of the courts is to uphold the state constitution. It’s difficult to predict what a standoff would mean for the state, other than vast amounts of taxpayer money spent on legal fees.

The best course would be for the Legislature to roll back some of the income tax cuts that have decimated the state budget and forced Kansans to pay more in sales taxes and property taxes.

— The Kansas City Star

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