Disgraceful decision will hurt Kansas

This is a reprise of a January 10, 2005 column, which is worthwhile to read again.

Disgraceful Decision Will Hurt Kansas
by Karl Peterjohn, Executive Director, Kansas Taxpayers Network

The Kansas Supreme Court’s school finance decision is deeply flawed both in substance and in procedure. This five page judicial edict (www.kscourts.org see case no. 92,032) announced January 3 is designed to pressure the legislature into voting for more spending for public schools without saying by how much. Many tax and spend advocates are now claiming the court is requiring a tax hike, but no such specific language is contained within this decision.

This claim is supposedly based upon language contained within the Kansas Constitution and various statutes enacted in Kansas. This Constitution itself is unchanged since the 1994 Kansas Supreme Court decision that said the school finance system was constitutional. At that time, state school spending was almost $700 million a year less than it is today. This decision is inconsistent with the 1994 case and the school spending facts between 1994 and now.

Neither this legal edict or any language within our state constitution suggests whether increased school spending of four percent or fourteen percent or forty four percent more will make anything constitutional. The only positive for Kansas taxpayers in this ruling was the court’s decision to keep this case out of judicial activist Terry Bullock’s courtroom and Bullock’s explicit billion dollar spending and tax edict.

Plaintiff and trial attorneys for the school districts that brought this lawsuit are already claiming that a billion dollars in additional state spending is required. The leading plaintiff attorney is Alan Rupe who has been involved in all of the school finance lawsuits in Kansas going back to the 1980′s and has been repeating this claim. Ironically, the Augenblick and Myer study (A&M) that the plaintiffs rely upon in their lawsuit uses a much smaller figure. The actual A&M report, which is often discussed but seldom actually quoted says, “we are suggesting that total (public school) spending needs to increase by $229 million,” (page ES-4).

So the court came up with a judicial edict that said state spending on public schools was inadequate without saying by how much. The court went on to say that some unspecified increase in spending might not be enough to make it constitutional either. This is a strong indication on how the rule of law in Kansas is being replaced by the rule of a new super-legislature that consists of seven black robed lawyers. It is interesting to note that 57 percent of this court/super legislature, or more than twice the statewide average of 26.8 percent of registered voters in Kansas, are registered Democrats according to a check of public records.

The Kansas Supreme Court managed to come up with this ruling despite a lack of evidence in any of this litigation that Kansas spends less per pupil on public schools than our neighboring states. In fact, anyone who wants to check the federal government’s figures will see that Kansas spends more than our surrounding states despite having lower income than the national average. In some of these surveys Nebraska is ranked as spending as much or slightly more than Kansas but all of the other neighboring states get by with much less government school spending. A couple of days after this decision was released a national survey by Education Week confirmed that the government school system in Kansas is adequately funded. Kansas received a “B” grade on this scorecard for funding (see www.edweek.org).

A few days earlier the latest state data came out showing that Kansas’ average spending grew 3.8 percent in 2003-04 or $341 per pupil to average of $9,235. In 2004-05 the schools have budgeted school spending to grow by 10 percent, breaking the $10,000 per pupil mark. The average per pupil (FTE) in Kansas will have $10,162 spent during 2004-05 according to this most recent Kansas public school budget data.

However, the court’s unsigned and non-final edict lacked many of the important characteristics of judicial rulings. This edict was unsigned by anyone and news articles claim that such an edict must be unanimous to be issued this way by the court. Of course, this is not guaranteed as a final decision either. So this decision is vague concerning the state’s constitutional language and leaves important legal issues unspecified beyond a general decision that more spending is required with the court positioning itself to second guess the legislature’s after first adjournment and April 12.

Last month the court was narrowly and bitterly divided when it overruled its own 2001 decision by a 4-to-3 margin on the constitutionality of the Kansas death penalty. At least in that decision, Kansans were able to find out where the judges actually stood and there was a signed opinion.

In theory Kansas voters are supposed to have a say on judicial positions. However, since judicial retention elections were established in 1958 in Kansas, not a single appellate or supreme court member has ever lost their position after a retention election. These judicial appointments are almost as good as getting an explicitly lifetime federal judicial appointment. The pay and pension perks are similar and only slightly smaller too. Four of the Kansas Supreme Court judges had judicial retention votes in 2004 and will continue on the court for terms for at least six more years assuming that none resign or leave the court for other reasons.

The basis for this government school finance decision is the court’s vague position on what this constitutional language, “The legislature shall make suitable provision for finance of the educational interests of the state,” means. It is very clear that the Kansas Constitution does not mean that the judiciary system in Kansas should try to make a mess out of Kansas schools like federal judge Clark did in the Kansas City, Missouri school system beginning in the 1980′s and that continued for years.


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