Kansas Attorney General Derek Schmidt on Tuesday suggested the Legislature let the public have a say on the state’s constitutional duty to pay for public education, but he steered clear of criticizing the Kansas Supreme Court’s rulings on the topic.
Schmidt called for a “thoughtful, balanced, global discussion” about what Kansans want from a provision that they added to the constitution in the 1960s by popular vote. The provision requires the Legislature to provide “suitable” funding for public schools.
The state has faced years of litigation accusing it of underfunding Kansas schools based on the wording in Article 6 of the constitution. It has repeatedly lost in court, forcing the Legislature to appropriate more funding for schools.
Some Republicans have expressed frustration with the provision over the years and suggested the courts are over-interpreting the clause.
Schmidt avoided such language Tuesday when speaking to a House-Senate committee on school finance but said: “We’re a long way from the 15 words in Article 6, in terms of some of the particulars in how this has played out.”
“All I’m suggesting is, I don’t see why having a discussion about that is a bad thing — I think it’s actually a healthy thing,” he said.
Asking the public to amend the constitution again to change Article 6 would allow Kansans to reaffirm the current language or replace it, he said. He suggested potentially adding more detail to Article 6 that clarifies questions such as who can sue the state over school finance and what remedies should exist when state funding is unconstitutionally low.
One long-standing frustration among some lawmakers is that the judiciary can strike down school finance laws that are found unconstitutional and stop their implementation. Without a valid appropriations law on the books, the state has no authority to disburse money to schools.
That is relevant again because the Kansas Supreme Court found current school funding unconstitutional in October. It set a deadline of April 30 for the state to pass new legislation and file a written defense of it.
Schmidt urged lawmakers to address the court’s pending concerns and advised against speeding toward an amendment in an attempt to get out of doing so.
Schmidt was the Senate’s majority leader during a 2005 special session, when lawmakers pursued a slew of proposals to rein in the court’s authority on school funding via constitutional amendments. Schmidt helped craft at least one of them. All of them failed to pass the Legislature — which would require a two-thirds majority in each chamber — and reach a public vote.
Kansas City Democratic Rep. Valdenia Winn said she believes the state constitution works well as it stands.
“I’m not interested in a constitutional amendment, but we have had them before,” Winn said. “So it’s not a provision I object to, because again, on many issues, the people should have a say.”
Louisburg Republican Sen. Molly Baumgardner said the process of pursuing an amendment would require building consensus in the Legislature and would take multiple years.
“Should there be some discussion? I think that there should,” she said, noting that education takes up more than half of the state’s general fund budget. “I would like to see that the discussion be not so much in an attempt to circumvent the current (school finance lawsuit) that we’re in, but in the context of, what is it that the public is really wanting?“
Assaria Republican Rep. Steven Johnson expressed a similar sentiment.
“Even if we don’t have a constitutional amendment, I think it’s a useful discussion for the public,” said Johnson, head of the House tax committee, “just about where our priorities are and how we wade through the difficult decisions of where does the money go?”
On Monday the committee heard from other state agencies on how an 18 percent cut to the state’s general fund would affect them. That 18 percent is one way the Legislature could access an extra $600 million for schools in an effort to end the Gannon v. Kansas lawsuit. Another way would be through tax hikes.
The Kansas Supreme Court hasn’t said the Legislature needs to add $600 million to its education budget, but plaintiffs have suggested figures around or above that amount.
At Monday’s meeting, representatives from the state’s higher education system, the office in charge of disability services and other agencies said slicing their budgets would have serious repercussions.
Lawmakers might be tempted to redirect money from such agencies to K-12 education because there is not a constitutional obligation to fund all functions of government, though there is one in the case of public schools.
Celia Llopis-Jepsen is a reporter for the Kansas News Service, a collaboration of KCUR, Kansas Public Radio, KMUW and High Plains Public Radio covering health, education and politics. You can reach her on Twitter @Celia_LJ. Kansas News Service stories and photos may be republished at no cost with proper attribution and a link back to kcur.org.