If one thing has become clear in the week since the Kansas Supreme Court tossed out the newly minted school finance plan for K-12 public schools, it’s that Kansas politicians have become better at talking around the problem.
So far, it’s generally Democrats saying that the Legislature short-changed schools with the new finance plan.
Generally, Republicans are saying that the finance plan is OK, and that the Kansas Supreme Court is meddling and it ought to give the program a chance to produce the better outcomes (that’s smarter students) that the state wants.
And because the high court didn’t say just how much more money it wants spent on K-12 education, there is no real target for the Legislature to aim at as it figures out a new formula based on the court’s objections to how the plan distributes money to school districts.
Democrats are basically saying spend more money but aren’t saying where that money should come from. The answer, of course, is taxes, which the Legislature increased by nearly $600 million last session; most Kansans are just now getting an idea of how much it is going to cost them.
Republicans don’t want to raise taxes again, no matter how laudable the use of that new money. They’re just saying, “No new taxes.”
So where does this Supreme Court order go?
The court objected to a handful of relatively narrow provisions in the new school finance bill. Things like adjusting state contributions toward local school boards’ Local Option Budget (locally approved property tax increases for schools) that the court said aren’t absolutely equal across the state. There is the provision that gives money to school districts for students who receive free- or reduced-price lunches under federal programs even if they don’t have at least 10 percent of pupils in that situation—a legislative hand-out to a couple Johnson County districts.
Oh, and there is that “please show your work” provision in the judgment, that the court couldn’t tell exactly what the Legislature based some of its decisions on in assembling the new school finance plan, and some relatively polite, but pointed objection to some of the research lawmakers used to produce facets of the bill that the court couldn’t double-check.
But the clearest view of the new decision is that with no dollar amount of new spending demanded by the court, well, nothing is clear.
What’s it going to come down to?
First, there will be largely Republican efforts to somehow toss aside the court decision. It’s the legislative and executive branches that are in charge of keeping the government working, they’ll maintain. Keep the courts out of it, and as long as we’re sending U.S. currency to school districts, well, that’s OK.
There will be Democratic efforts to churn through the decision, come up with the fixes the court wants, and then compute what those formula changes work out to in terms of tax dollars. It’s essentially determining the changes the court wants, putting them into state law, then either coming up with new money or redistributing available money through that reshaped formula to see what districts will get.
Then there’s the problem with a new formula—some districts getting less money under the new formula with no new money and figuring out how much new money is needed so that no district gets less next year than it did this year.
This isn’t going to be easy, won’t be pretty…and at the end of the exercise, House members who stand for re-election in 2018 will be telling their districts they did the right thing. Wonder how that’s going to be phrased…
Martin Hawver is the publisher of Hawver’s Capitol Report. Visit his website at www.hawvernews.com