As state legislators grappled with a new Kansas school-funding plan this spring, in West Virginia, Kentucky, Oklahoma, Arizona, Colorado and recently North Carolina, strikes, walkouts and statewide teacher rallies closed schools.
The demonstrations protested low salaries for teachers and other school employees that have not been raised in at least one state for 10 years, out-of-date teaching materials and technology and the lack of support for much needed programs cut in recent years.
If these problems sound familiar, they should. The issues driving the battle for increased public school funding in other states are similar to Kansas’ concerns. However, there is one major difference between problems in the other states and Kansas. In Kansas this spring there were no statewide walkouts and no strike. No children were left without a teacher for a single rally protest day.
This is because the Kansas Constitution provided an orderly path to resolution of the school funding issue through the legal system. That’s right, despite much controversy, the system worked. Because Kansas school districts carry fiduciary responsibility for schools, the process began with a lawsuit filed by a group of school districts and ended with a state Supreme Court ruling that called for increasing school funding. The issue was not resolved by protests as has happened in other states.
During the heat of argument over the amount of new funding to be earmarked for schools — a responsibility held by the Legislature — some frustrated legislators suggested a constitutional amendment that would give exclusive power to the Legislature to set funding and provide no constitutional review; thereby, cutting out the voice of the judiciary.
Even though the legislative primacy exists in some other states, the Kansas division of power among the legislative, judicial and executive branches seems to make sense for the stability of state government given that the nation, built on the same principle, has succeeded in resolving disputes for more than 200 years.
The underlying problem is not what branch of government drives funding decisions, but whether school funding achieves its overall goal of enhancing lives of individual students and advancing our nation. A 2018 book by a group of economists and philosophers, “Educational Goods: Values, Evidence, and Decision-Making,” challenges policymakers as they work within their assigned responsibilities to think clearly about fundamental educational values as they make funding decisions. The idea is to determine what objectives need to be achieved, then match funding to the cost of realizing those educational objectives.
Before the idea of amending the Kansas Constitution returns as a solution to school funding problems let’s remind ourselves of the governing principles that led to the success we enjoy as a state and nation. Legislators can best resolve the conflict over school funding and state finances by working with school leaders and, if necessary, the courts, to articulate and advance the values Kansans hold for statewide, high quality public education.
Sharon Hartin Iorio, Ph.D., is professor and dean emeritus at Wichita State University College of Education.