The Kansas Supreme Court and local public schools are now joined, sharing threads of common purpose. The question for both is whether the next generations of students are offered promise, or are consigned to the futility of education by whim.
For the past 20 years, the state’s highest court has been the last hope for local schools, turning back repeated attempts by right-wing ideologues to hijack our education system and offer it to low-bidders who favor “privatized” or “independent” local schools.
More simply, the Court has prevented a ruinous takeover by zealots who would reshape local schools into a loose confederacy of private academies. This is the dream of the far right, and closer to reality than the public is led to believe.
Two years ago the Kansas Legislature, led by Republican majorities, abolished the state’s time-tested system of public school finance. In its place came a “temporary” system of block grants for each of the state’s 286 school districts; funding was based upon districts’ prior budgets, checks issued by fiat. At the same time, badly needed tax dollars were diverted to grants and vouchers for those who wished to enroll in private schools.
Short-changed districts, meanwhile, were invited to appeal their block checks before a panel of those who had allocated funds in the first place. This was the “new” system of school funding ‒ until, it was said, the legislature could craft a more “permanent” reform, one that eliminated the need, or most of it, for public school finance as we knew it.
As it turned out, funding for all state agencies was in jeopardy because lawmakers had embarked on the governor’s dream to abolish income taxes for certain businesses and the rich, plunging the state deeply into deficit. There was little money for education.
Block grants, insufficient or worse, would have to do.
The Court has ruled repeatedly against this scheme. Until the stricture of block grant funding was imposed, the core law in school finance was that the quality of education in a school district must not depend on the wealth of that district; for decades, school funding was built on flexibility, the need to accommodate changes in, say, the local economy, in numbers of students, or the cost of natural disaster, the need for repair and maintenance, the plight of students at risk, to name a few.
Rich, poor or in-between, local schools were given latitude, the ability to change. The goal, through the former aid formula, was statewide equity.
The legislature’s new plan took that away. Disparities widened between poor and wealthy districts. Those who felt shortchanged, beginning with remote districts in sparsely populated rural regions, could hardly afford the time and expense to travel to Topeka and grovel before a kangaroo committee for an increase in their meager checks.
On May 27 the Court ruled that the legislature had failed to comply with its February order to increase funding for poor and short-changed school districts. (The legislature had only shuffled funds among various accounts, a flimsy attempt to make it appear that more money was headed to less affluent schools.)
Because lawmakers spent lavishly to abolish income taxes for the privileged, the state budget turned red, and school finance suffered dramatically. The Court ordered school funding to be made equitable by the end of June, or schools would not be allowed to open in August.
The legislature’s leaders have reacted only with rage at the Court, complaints about “activist” judges, accusations that the Court had “usurped” the legislature’s power. In bald fact, the Court acted because the legislature wouldn’t. The dominant GOP lawmakers, with help from the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) and the Kansas Chamber of Commerce, have only crafted ways to de-fund public education and send money ‒ taxes raised locally ‒ to private schools through state vouchers and grants. It has happened repeatedly in recent years, and the Court was never fooled.
IT’S DOUBTFUL that much will be done to fix local school finance or to prevent schools from shutting down. Legislators and the governor are likely to let the worst happen and blame the crisis on the courts. Of the Court’s seven justices, five are on the November ballot and must be retained by voters to stay on the bench. The governor, his legislative minions and their far-right guidance counselors, are insisting that voters remove these justices, especially for their “activist” leanings toward local schools. The governor could then appoint his allies to the Court.
Thus, the future for local education rests with voters in November. A majority of the Supreme Court, local schools’ most powerful guardian, is up for retention. So, then, are local schools.
To reject the justices is to extinguish the last hope for local schools, the promise for students who learn in them and the legacy of patrons who believe in them. Keep the justices. Keep hope alive.