Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Supporters of amendment say Legislature should be sole authority on school funding

By SCOTT ROTHSCHILD, The Lawrence Journal-World

School finance decisions by the Legislature shouldn't be open for review by the courts, according to a supporter of a proposed constitutional amendment that would make the Legislature the sole authority on funding public education.

Sen. Steve Abrams, R-Arkansas City, said Wednesday the amendment is needed to clarify that the Legislature — not the courts — has the power to appropriate funds for schools.

Sen. Pat Pettey, D-Kansas City, asked Abrams what recourse schools would have if the Legislature doesn't follow through on promised funding.

Abrams said determining a suitable provision for the finance of schools, "I'm going to suggest is what the Legislature says it is. They are the final arbiter."

He said if the public is unhappy with a legislator's vote on school finance, then voters can vote that legislator out of office.

The exchange occurred during a hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee on Senate Concurrent Resolution 1608, which says that the financing of educational interests of the state is exclusively a legislative power.

The measure is in response to court orders for the Legislature to increase school funding.

Last month, a three-judge panel ruled that the state has failed to provide adequate funding for schools and ordered an increase of at least $440 million. The ruling came in a lawsuit that was brought by a group of school districts because of state funding cuts to schools during the recession.

In 2005 and 2006, the Kansas Supreme Court ruled the school finance system unconstitutional and threatened to shutter schools if the Legislature didn't increase funding.

The proposed constitutional amendment would need two thirds support in the House and Senate before it could be placed on the ballot during the state primaries in August 2014.

Dan Thatcher, a policy analyst with the National Conference of State Legislatures, said since the 1970s, 45 states have gone through school finance litigation.

"Kansas is definitely not alone in this situation," he said.

He said that in cases similar to Kansas, where plaintiffs have alleged inadequate funding, the plaintiffs have won 62 percent of the time.

He said a recent study showed that the school finance lawsuits nationwide have resulted in a 6 percent increase in total spending on schools and 13 percent increase in state spending on schools.