By Topeka Capita-Journal, Nov. 29
Gov. Sam Brownback says he hopes a recent meeting among select legislators and educators “laid the groundwork” for future discussion about ending the cycle of school finance litigation.
Most Kansans probably would agree, although they may hope the groundwork was laid for discussion and “progress” toward ending the cycle of school finance lawsuits.
The litigation has created tension, if not an outright rift, between lawmakers and many educators that does nothing to solve the overriding question of how much money the state’s K-12 public school system needs to properly educate its students.
In 2003, Schools for Fair Funding filed a lawsuit contending the state’s school finance formula was inequitable and that the Legislature wasn’t living up to its constitutional responsibility of making “suitable provision for the finance” of education. The Kansas Supreme Court in 2005 ruled in favor of the plaintiffs and the Legislature in 2006 passed a law designed to allocate additional funding, nearly $800 million, to education.
The recession interrupted the funding flow, however, and the current lawsuit, seeking another $400 million annually for K-12 education, was filed in 2010. The Kansas Supreme Court is expected to issue its ruling on the case early next year.
Regardless of how wide the rift is between some legislators and some educators, or how wide the gap is between what each side in this dispute considers adequate funding for schools, opening the lines of discussion, and ensuring the line stays open, just makes sense. The governor made a good move by initiating a process that could lead to a better understanding among lawmakers and educators.
The first meeting, conducted Monday at the Capitol, reportedly touched on broad ideas rather than specifics, but subsequent meetings will be conducted to identify areas legislators and educators could work on together.
One topic that did receive attention Monday was how increased funding for teacher pensions fit into the school finance formula. Brownback contends increases in the dollars devoted to teacher pensions through the Kansas Public Employees Retirement System under his watch must be considered as increased funding for K-12 education. Plaintiffs in the current lawsuit disagree.
No one knows exactly what the Kansas Supreme Court justices will say in their ruling, but the state should get credit for the cost of teacher pensions. Employers, public and private, must factor labor costs, all of them, into their budgets. Those costs include salaries and benefits. To disregard the cost of pensions, a significant expenditure, when computing the state’s contribution to education makes no sense.