Saturday, December 20, 2014

‘The Legislature has their work cut out for them’

By DYLAN LYSEN, Herald Staff Writer | 3/7/2014

Is it really fair for the state’s court system to decide adequate funding for education? That was the question on Bob Fluke’s mind Friday.

Decisions on education funding should rest in the hands of elected legislators, Fluke, Franklin County Republican Central Committee chairman and a math teacher at Ottawa Middle School, answered in response to the Kansas Supreme Court’s ruling.

Is it really fair for the state’s court system to decide adequate funding for education? That was the question on Bob Fluke’s mind Friday.

Decisions on education funding should rest in the hands of elected legislators, Fluke, Franklin County Republican Central Committee chairman and a math teacher at Ottawa Middle School, answered in response to the Kansas Supreme Court’s ruling.

The court said Friday the state’s education funding is unconstitutional and has until July 1 to raise funding to an “adequate” level. The case was sent back to the district court to “promptly” determine what the adequate amount of funding should be. According to media reports, state education officials said the increase could end up being close to $130 million.

“I question the constitutionality of their decision,” Fluke said. “It’s not a question, I don’t think, of did we give enough money to schools or appropriate enough money for schools for adequate funding, but is it the court’s right to say that?”

Spending more money on education is a good thing, Fluke said, but only if it is allocated to the proper areas that need it. He said he doesn’t want more money to be spent on non-essential items, such as extracurricular activities, when it could be spent more efficiently on students in the classroom.

“If there is an increase in state funding that much, it needs to basically go into the classrooms,” he said. “I’m not just saying that for teacher salaries, that’s not what I’m talking about. I’m talking about what works best for students to get the best education they can.”

Now that the Kansas Supreme Court has made a decision, Fluke said, he thinks the Legislature will take as much time as it can to decide how to handle the situation.

“The Legislature has their work cut out for them,” Fluke said. “It’s a chess game.”

State Sen. Caryn Tyson, R-Parker, said because the case was being sent back to the lower courts to determine a specific amount for funding she wasn’t sure what will happen next.

“It will be interesting to see what the lower court says,” she said. “We’ll know more as the weekend goes.”

Tyson’s colleague in the House, state Rep. Blaine Finch, R-Ottawa, expressed confidence after the court’s ruling.

“Based on comments from the governor and leadership in the House and Senate it appears that all parties are ready to get down to work to see if we can resolve the equity issue in a timely fashion,” Finch said. “I am hopeful that we can begin a broader discussion about how our current funding formula stacks up to the new adequacy test set forth by the court today.”

Among those Statehouse leaders was state Sen. Jeff King, R-Independence, who previously represented Franklin County residents in the Legislature. King said he was pleased with the court’s ruling and that he has twice co-authored legislation to increase equalization for education funding, according to a news release.

“Today’s ruling highlighted southeast Kansas’ education priority ­— equalization of school funding,” King said. “The quality of a child’s education should not be based on the wealth in that student’s district.”

Gov. Sam Brownback responded to the ruling Friday with Kansas Attorney General Derek Schmidt, State Senate President Susan Wagle, R-Wichita, and State House Speaker Ray Merrick, R-Stilwell, according to a news release. Brownback said the Legislature will do what is necessary to raise education funding to an adequate level.

“We have an opportunity for progress,” Brownback said. “My commitment is to work with legislative leadership to address the allocation issue identified by the court. We will fix this.”

Wagle said the ruling allows for the Legislature to solve a problem created by previous administrations.

“Our task is to come to resolution on capital outlay funding and local option budgets before July 1,” Wagle said. “We now have some clarity as we work toward resolution of issues that began years ago under prior administrations.”

Merrick agreed with Fluke that the amount of money is not the issue of contention, rather it’s where the money is allocated.

“I was pleased the court also recognized that total dollars spent is not the touchstone for adequacy in education,” Merrick said. “Our focus is on supporting teachers and improving student outcomes so that all Kansas children continue to receive a quality education.”

Kansas House Minority Leader and gubernatorial candidate Paul Davis, D-Lawrence, said education funding has been a topic he’s been concerned with for years.

“Kansas parents, kids, teachers and business leaders don’t need a court order to tell us to restore funding to our schools,” Davis said. “I’ve been saying it for years. Providing our kids with world-class public schools is both a moral and constitutional obligation — no matter where they live in our great state. Johnson County or Johnson City.”

While some Republicans were blaming the unsuitable level of education funding on previous administrations, Davis said the current lack of funding was caused by Brownback’s cuts after taking office as governor.

“Right after taking office, Sam Brownback proposed and signed the largest cut to public schools in Kansas history — cutting $232 per student — more than $100 million,” Davis said. “That was above and beyond cuts made out of necessity during the Great Recession.”

State Rep. Kevin Jones, R-Wellsville, did not respond to questions about the ruling.

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