Funding schools shouldn’t take another lawsuit

After a respected Colorado consulting firm, Augenblick & Myers, Inc., studied “the cost of a suitable education in Kansas” and issued its report in May 2002, the Legislature did nothing, so a group of state school districts filed a lawsuit. The state constitution requires the Legislature to fund the schools adequately, the suit contended. That was not being done, so do it.
In due time, the suit worked its way up to the Kansas Supreme Court, which agreed with the school districts and ordered the Legislature to pony up in decisions issued in 2005 and 2006.
With much gnashing of teeth, the lawmakers did so rather than face the awful prospect of having the court close the schools.
Today some school officials talk about taking the funding issue back to judges and justices.
“It’s an option that’s on the table that our board will consider if this continues,” said Richard Atha, superintendent of Garden City’s schools.
The “this” Mr. Atha referred to is the 4.8 percent reduction in school funding that the 2009 Legislature and the governor imposed due to the recession. If state revenues continue to de-crease or don’t increase substantially, the only way lawmakers can re-store funding enough to comply with the high court decisions is to raise taxes.
The court ordered school funding increased not only toward the levels advocated in the A&M study but also required annual increases sufficient to keep up with inflation.

GOING TO COURT again to force the Legislature to act is not a timely idea. But perhaps the threat of another lawsuit — which would have a better than even chance of succeeding — will prompt some non-ideological thinking in the 2010 Session.
The fact is that the Legislature cut taxes on business and other sectors, deliberately making it more difficult to meet its obligations to Kansas youth. If they do go to court, educators will have the facts on their side if they call for reversing the tax-cutting decisions of the past in order to fund the schools adequately.
The Republican-dominated Legislature will recite party dogma in response: raising taxes would slow business growth and delay or halt any economy recovery.
But that IS dogma, not fact. The impact of tax increases or decreases on the economy is not predictable. President Bill Clinton, for example, presided over substantial federal tax increases early in his first term. The economy then entered one of the longest booms in U.S. history and federal income rose dramatically, allowing Clinton to balance the federal budget for the first time since Eisenhower.
The states also experienced budget surpluses and taxes were slashed in Kansas under Gov. Bill Graves. Those tax cuts did not stimulate the state’s economy, as Republican cant would assume. Instead, state income fell, in real dollars, and budgets were funded with carry-overs as the economy turned sluggish again.
What would happen to the Kansas economy if carefully crafted tax in-creases were put in place to restore school funding? The safest answer to that question is that it would follow the national economy as it most always has. State tax policies had very little to do with the prosperity Kansas enjoyed in the 1990s — and probably won’t shape the coming decade.
What we do know with certainty is that educating Kansas youth — from pre-school through graduate school — is the most important function state government has and that the quality of that education will do more to determine the level of prosperity for the state and its people than any other single factor that we, as citizens, can control.
Should school funding be restored? Most certainly. And it shouldn’t take judges and justices to make it happen. That is the Legislature’s job. Our representatives and senators should do it all on their own.

— Emerson Lynn, jr.