Politics

With Ruling Looming, Kansas Governor Tells Courts Not to Order School Funding in State of the State

January 16, 2014

Read text and highlights of every governor's State of the State.

By Brad Cooper

With a landmark court case on school finance looming, Gov. Sam Brownback delivered a stern message to the courts about who bankrolls education in Kansas.

"The Constitution empowers the Legislature -- the people's representatives -- to fund our schools," Brownback told lawmakers in his prepared remarks for the annual State of the State Address Wednesday night.

"This is the people's business, done by the people's house through the wonderfully untidy -- but open for all to see -- business of appropriations," the Republican governor told an audience that included members of the Kansas Supreme Court.

Brownback's comments were timely. The court could rule any day on a lawsuit seeking upward of $600 million in added state funding for local school districts.

The governor sounded a theme voiced by many conservative lawmakersstill stung by the court's 2005 ruling that forced the state to spend hundreds of millions of dollars more on elementary and secondary education.

Conservatives argued the court overstepped its authority when it prescribed a specific funding level for schools. They say that's a political decision, not one that should be made in the courts.

The state pressed that case in court last October in rebutting arguments that the Legislature backed away from promises to increase funding for schools.

A ruling similar to the 2005 decision could send this year's legislative session into a tailspin. It's unclear where the state would find so much money to comply with a court order.

Brownback took steps in his speech to rebuff critics who don't think he supports schools, namely with a plan to fund all-day kindergarten in Kansas.

The plan would cost $80 million over five years to phase in. The governor's spokesman said the plan could be funded from increased revenues.

"We have a budget that is implementable and sustainable," Eileen Hawley said in an email.

For the current fiscal year, state revenues were up $3.5 million -- less than 1 percent -- over projections through December.

The governor's office did not reveal any details about his budget Wednesday night. The budget is expected to be unveiled for lawmakers Thursday.

The plan to fund all-day kindergarten could bring financial relief to hundreds of families who spend big bucks to enroll their kids in the program.

In Johnson County, there are 3,600 kids enrolled in all-day kindergarten in the Shawnee Mission, Blue Valley and Olathe school districts. Parents pay between $275 and $300 a month to place their kids in all-day kindergarten.

So far, leading lawmakers have been cool to the idea. They're not only cautious about the price and how it might affect other services, they wonder about its effectiveness.

"This proposal is targeted. It is reasonable. It will benefit Kansas school kids," Brownback said. "Thanks to the growing economy and the work of the this Legislature, it is affordable."

(c)2014 The Kansas City Star (Kansas City, Mo.)

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