A suitable remedy for unsuitable Kansas school ruling
The Kansas City Star
A single word can cause a great deal of mischief, especially if the word lurks in a legal document. Consider the word “suitable.”
The Kansas Constitution says the state must make “suitable provision for finance” of public schools. Whatever committee came up with that may have seen the word as unthreatening. But what does it mean? What’s suitable for one person may be unsuitable for another.
Never mind. When it comes to K-12 education, the state’s courts know what the word means, right down to the dollar. It means state aid of $4,492 per pupil and not a penny less.
I wrote about this topic in 2005, after a three-judge panel at the district court level came up with its $4,492 finding, forcing a special session of the Legislature. I found it amazing that a panel could order lawmakers to emit $143 million more — exactly that amount, mind you — for schools, based on a subjective term like “suitable.”
Here we are seven years later and the Kansas school-finance vortex still whirls.
An appeals court recently decreed that because the state has fallen so far behind the judiciary’s notion of suitable, the Legislature must now cough up another $400 million or so. Per-pupil base aid must rise from its current $3,838 to the level the court discovered in 2005: $4,492.
Which has generated a quick response from several lawmakers. Sen. Jeff King, an Independence Republican, is pushing a constitutional amendment stating flatly that funding “the educational interest of the state is exclusively a legislative power…”
That ought to be common sense. Every spending constituency in state politics would love to have what education interests claim — to have the state’s high court consider their needs in isolation from every other budgetary priority.
Education is important. It is one of the state’s primary functions. But lawmakers must also budget for social services, transportation and other things deemed important. And in any case, the link between amount spent and educational outcomes is tenuous; Texas spends less on schools than California, but ranks higher.
To be approved, King’s school-finance amendment must be endorsed by two-thirds of the House and Senate and a majority of the state’s voters. “It’s time to let the people of Kansas vote and decide,” King said.
The finding that per pupil state aid must be $4,492 goes back to a study done years ago at the behest of the Legislature. Supporters say: That’s what the study decided a suitable education would cost, the Legislature itself authorized the study, so the Legislature must comply with the study’s conclusions. Never mind the axiom that legislatures of the past cannot give orders to legislatures of the future.
The recent state appeals court ruling said lawmakers must restore earlier cuts and comply with the funding level decreed by the study, as endorsed by the state Supreme Court.
Here’s the absurdity of this thinking. Does anyone reading this doubt that a different consultant than the one originally chosen would come up with a different number? So what’s sacred about $4,492?
A different consultant tasked with deciding what’s “suitable” would likely propose a different mix of required courses, yielding different costs. For example, how much phys ed — which requires the construction of gyms and locker rooms —is suitable?
For judges to use reasoning this thin as a basis for essentially dictating the state’s budgetary priorities is extraordinary.
Litigation over “suitable” has been going on since the word was added in 1966. The amendment proposed by King deserves approval. It would clarify that education funding is a legislative prerogative, and the remedy for voters upset about state aid is not to go to court but to elect different legislators.
The state Senate Judiciary Committee will conduct hearings Wednesday and Thursday on King’s proposed constitutional amendment.
To reach E. Thomas McClanahan, call 816-234-4480 or send email to firstname.lastname@example.org.