Kansas Lawmakers Propose Constitution Change


Last Updated: March 30, 2011
 

This article appeared in the March 2011 Rural Policy Matters.

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New constitutional language proposed. A committee in the Kansas State of Representatives Committee has passed a proposed constitutional amendment that would bar courts from ordering increases in school spending. The move is a response to recent lawsuits that challenged the state’s school funding levels. (For more information, read previous RSFN coverage of the issue here.)

The proposed language reads: "The Legislature shall provide the equitable distribution of public school funds in a manner and amount as may be determined by the Legislature.” This change would replace the current language, "The Legislature shall make suitable provision for finance of the educational interests of the state,” which has been the basis for the finance lawsuits.

Supporters of the amendment, among them Governor Sam Brownback, claim that by giving the legislature sole authority to establish spending levels, the change would stop the “continuous cycle of litigation.”

Constitutional amendments must pass both the state House and Senate with a 2/3 majority and be approved by voters.

Legal bid to allow districts to exceed property tax caps fails. In other legal news, parents in the wealthy suburban Shawnee Mission Unified School District have lost their legal bid to lift the state cap on property taxes in order to increase funding in their schools.

Currently, districts are allowed raise an additional 31% of the state per pupil aid amount in local property taxes. One issue in the case was whether school districts have the ability to levy taxes independently of state permission to do so.

The U.S. District Judge who dismissed the case ruled that the cap is integral to the school funding system as a whole and that lifting it would cause unconstitutional disparity among districts and call into question the entire school funding system.

The suit was opposed by the mostly rural plaintiffs in the current school funding lawsuit, who expressed agreement with the ruling. It was also opposed by Governor Brownback.

An appeal is planned.

Budget cuts and consolidation proposals. Governor Brown unilaterally cut $56.5 million in state spending, including $50.2 million from public schools earlier this month when the legislature did not balance the budget during early House-Senate negotiations. Brownback’s office characterized the cut to education funding as a transfer to cover increased health and human services caseloads.

The Kansas legislature has not completed its budgetary process. The Senate Ways and Means committee has adopted a budget that is similar to the governor’s, although proposed cuts to education are about $22 less per student than Brownback’s proposed cuts.

Last year, Kansas lawmakers increased the state’s sales tax to avoid drastic cuts. But Brownback and Republicans who control both chambers of the Legislature promised not to increase taxes this year. Schools have said they will be looking at layoffs to deal with the cuts.

Other proposals would require teachers to live within the state, restrict the activities of unions, reduce retirement benefits, and require the consolidation of school districts into 10,000 student units. Some education leaders have characterized this current mix of political and legal action as a “full frontal assault on education.”

Read more:

Coverage on proposed Constitutional amendment:

Shawnee lawsuit:

Kansas state budget process:

Consolidation proposal:

Read more from the March 2011 Rural Policy Matters.