Local school finance, an issue with clearly defined challenges, has driven Republican leaders in Topeka toward madness, a frenzy that is reminiscent of Gov. Sam Brownback’s calamitous assault on the independence of state courts. His attack failed but the embers continue to glow.
For a moment the party’s leaders have taken a script straight from the Sam Brownback-Donald Trump play- book: When faced with embarrassing facts, lash out.
Only two years ago, a three-judge panel in Shawnee County ruled that public school funding was, as expect- ed, unconstitutionally inadequate. The remedy, said the judges, may require hundreds of millions of dollars in additional funding for schools. Rather than addressing the issue, the Legislature, with Gov. Brownback’s blessing, threatened to deny funding for the courts’ budget.
Last October, the Kansas Supreme Court confirmed the issue, ruling much the same: The legislature for nearly a decade had short-changed school funding while pursuing self-inflicted disaster, abolishing income taxes for the rich and select businesses with no viable plan to replace the lost revenue. Financial calamity followed, and the deficit for school funding increased. Thus the court directed legislators to craft a plan that provides adequate state aid for a system that has remained unconstitutionally short- changed since 2009.
Rather than fix school finance, the governor and his loyal legislators chose to attack the courts. They accused judges of meddling in politics, of “advocacy,” of “usurp- ing” legislative power. The governor and his legislators proposed that the current system of judicial selection be replaced with the direct election of all state judges. Judges aren’t accountable to taxpayers, they said, and should be required to run for office.
They had forgotten – or didn’t know – that Kansas already has such a system. In 14 of the state’s 31 judi- cial districts, judges are elected. In 17 districts, they are selected by a lay-lawyer nominating process that ends with appointment by the governor. Half of the state’s 218 district court judges are elected. The other 109 are selected by nomination and appointment.
With Brownback gone to preach religious harmony for Donald Trump, there were whispers that adequate school finance may be in the works. Last month, a study from Texas A&M seemed to backfire for conservatives who had ordered it, an embarrassment that confirmed the need for more money for schools.
Quibbling over money and the rewriting of recent his- tory – recovering tax rates from 2010 suddenly became a tax “increase”– began to muddle the matter of meeting the Court’s order, of finding more money for schools and a way to pay for it.
Rather than face the challenge, Republicans have ordered a ham-fisted, incoherent amendment to the state Constitution that forbids any court oversight on school funding. It also removes the governor from the process, creating a one-branch government for school finance. By this amendment, only the legislature can decide spending for local schools. No courts, no governor have any say. The measure has been passed by the House Judiciary Committee, and is on track for debate in the full House. The Senate president waits for it like a mother on the tar- mac, gazing upward for the plane bringing her long-lost child.
Thus, Republicans hope to sidetrack the issue of fund- ing local schools with a measure that consigns courts and the governor to insignificance. It bans any appeal from those who would promise youngsters a decent education, a promise that Kansans were once happy to provide and finance.
That promise would be shelved by Republicans who ignore both obligation and history. The courts stimulated historic education reforms of 1992, the two parties worked to create and pass the legislation, and Gov. Joan Finney
signed it into law; two decades of relative stability fol- lowed.
It then was corrupted by a governor who saw himself as emperor and pontiff, and a Republican legislature that followed blindly along. The judiciary remained the sole source of hope in the people’s desire for a fair shake.
And last October, the high court offered what we would find nowhere else, a ruling for equity. It came not from a legislature, not the governor. A coarse and uncultivated constitutional amendment signals that the House and Senate would censor the matter, avoid adequate school finance by clubbing out the courts that insist on it.
What’s next is left to the imagination. (Voting laws? Police powers? Medicare?)
Leave the judiciary alone. The courts are an instrument and arbiter of law. Without our courts there is no law, and with no law we are subject to tyranny, to the whims and brutality of power struggles, ones that have little room for justice and even less for the people who need it.