Showdown In A Kansas Courtroom Over School Funding

May 6, 2015

There’s a school funding showdown Thursday in a Kansas courtroom.

Two court cases have been a huge part of the debate in the state over how much the legislature should spend on public education. But the real battle is between Kansas history and modern state politics.

When the hearing begins in Shawnee County District Court in Topeka there will be complicated testimony and evidence all lashed together with mind numbing legalese.

There’s a blizzard of paper with captions like: Plaintiff’s Response to Motion to Add to the Record on Remand.

But if you leave the trees behind and focus on the forest, this school funding case comes down to politics and the background of the Kansas founders.

"For the most part they were well educated people," says historian Virgil Dean who worked at the Kansas State Historical Society. "They came here with the idea that they’re either going to recreate something similar to what they left behind or make something better, and education is just an accepted idea that that’s one of the things that you need."

Public education, Dean says, was in the founding Wyandotte constitution written in 1859 in what is now Kansas City, Kansas.

While the question of whether Kansas would be a slave state was largely settled by 1859, the Wyandotte convention, Dean says, still dealt with weighty issues like suffrage for women and blacks and even how far west the state should stretch.

But there was still time for schools.

"So there’s that commitment to a good education for all the children of Kansas I think is reflected in that attention that they give to a structure that will not only give some uniformity to the schools and guarantee some quality education but ensure some equality in funding," he says.

Quality education and equality in funding — sound familiar?

So when Kansas is admitted to the union in 1861 we have article six of the constitution. It not only requires public schools be established, but sets aside state land to be sold or rented to pay for them.

Then, in 1966, the state amended the constitution and strengthened article six.

The state constitution now says the “legislature shall make suitable provision for finance of the educational interests of the state.”

Language that is at the heart of Thursday's hearing.

Jeffery Jackson is a law professor at Washburn University, he worked at the Kansas Supreme Court and  just recently gave a talk on the 800th anniversary of the Magna Carta. He knows something about founding documents.

Jackson says the Kansas constitution is clear, lawmakers shall suitably fund education.

"Who holds them to that duty? In fact, up to the courts to hold them to that duty. Which is how we end up with the court involvement," he says.

This has, however, rankled conservatives in the legislature for years. Legislating from the bench, they charge. If judges want to say how much money Kansas should spend on schools, let them run for office.

Jackson says there’s one sure fire way to get the courts out of school funding.

"The standard retort to that should be, well, change the constitution. If you don’t want the courts enforcing this you can change the constitution to take away that duty."

But the hearing Thursday might just be teeing up a much bigger political fight. University of Kansas political science Professor Burdett Loomis says this is a surrogate fight between the legislature and the courts over school finance.

"The courts dominate, in many ways, parts of school finance. And I think the legislature, many members of the legislature, that sticks in their craw. Absolutely," he says.

Loomis says in addition to the courts stuck in "their craw," some legislators simply don’t like public education and would prefer charter schools or vouchers.

The hearing in Topeka seems to be the start of the final showdown between the four school districts, including KCK,  that claim the legislature is failing to meet its constitutional mandate, and the state who says it is.

A three judge panel will hear all outstanding issues and there’s no doubt the ruling will be appealed to the Kansas Supreme Court.

And that, says Loomis, is when things can get either fascinating or awful.

"It’s pretty clear to me that we are headed in either the near future or the intermediate future to some type of constitutional crisis in which the courts are going to demand more funding and the legislature is just going to say no," he says

Of course, Loomis says, we don’t know what’s going to happen if the high court orders the legislature to spend more money. But most observers think we’ll have a better idea of which way it’s going to go before June 30, the end of the current fiscal year.