Kansas Democracy Lesson
A test of whether judges can overrule elected officials on taxes and spending.
Jan. 16, 2014 7:07 p.m. ET
If there’s one certain conclusion from the last 30 years of education reform, it is that more money doesn’t yield better student results. But you wouldn’t know it from the debate in Kansas, where activists are trying to get the state Supreme Court to overrule the legislature and spend at least $500 million more a year on schools.
This is a test of democracy with national resonance. The Kansas Constitution requires that “the legislature shall make suitable provision for finance of the educational interests of the state.” In 2005 the Kansas Supreme Court ruled in a similar challenge that state aid to local school districts was insufficient and must rise to $4,400 per student. This is in addition to the $3,000 state aid per student for special ed and other programs and on top of what local school districts spend.
Eight years later spending has risen but test scores are flat, and now union activists allege that funding under Republican Governor Sam Brownback has fallen. That is only true if you include the one-time infusion from the Obama stimulus in 2010 and 2011. Apart from the stimulus, which was never meant to be permanent, Kansas school appropriations have risen slowly but steadily every year.
Judicially imposed school spending is a familiar strategy when unions lose in the legislature. Courts in about half the states mandated additional funding in the 1980s and ’90s after lawsuits alleged that spending was inequitable or inadequate.
Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback Associated Press
In 1985 a Missouri judge took partial control of the Kansas City public schools on grounds of insufficient funding for minority schools. The judge ordered the state to spend $2 billion over 12 years. Per student funding more than doubled (to about $25,000 per student in today’s dollars) and the student-teacher ratio fell to 13 to 1.
The state built 15 new schools with computer and robotics centers, Olympic-sized swimming pools, and even a wildlife sanctuary. If money produces student achievement, it would have shown up in Kansas City. But as a Cato Institute study documented, a decade later black student achievement had not improved and even the judge admitted it was a failed experiment.
A study in 2009 by scholars Alfred Lindseth and Eric Hanushek examined public school performance in Kentucky, Massachusetts, New Jersey and Wyoming—the four states with the largest increase in funding due to court orders. They found that in three of the four states, “notwithstanding these dramatic spending increases, we found that student performance has languished.”
Test scores in these states have “not measurably improved relative to other states that did not have anywhere near the same influx of new school money.” The only improvement was in Massachusetts because its reforms included tough “non-financial” accountability standards.
Kansas school funding is more than adequate, with the state and local school districts combined spending about $11,776 per student on average. The state now spends about 50.5% of its budget on K-12 schools, which ranks fourth among states. If the lawsuit succeeds, the state would have to spend about 62%.
That would leave little for other priorities like roads or higher education unless the state raises taxes, which is probably the lawsuit’s real goal. Mr. Brownback and the GOP legislature cut taxes across the board in 2012, reducing the top income-tax rate to 4.9% from 6.45% and the tax on numerous small businesses to zero.
The plaintiffs claim there would be plenty of money for schools if not for the tax cut. But the Kansas Policy Institute, a local think tank, argues that the lawsuit’s spending could require a 23% income-tax increase or a 20% rise in local property taxes. Mr. Brownback’s tax cut is already attracting business to the state from its neighboring states, and a tax increase would undercut that economic progress.
This is also a test of the state Supreme Court. Four of the seven Justices were appointed by former Governor Kathleen Sebelius, of ObamaCare fame, and nominees are chosen by a commission dominated by the State Bar Association. The commission selects three potential nominees, and the Governor must choose one of the three.
This gives the lawyers’ guild effective control of the judiciary, creating a conflict of interest and pushing the judiciary to the left. Kansas Republicans want to change this selection process and let the Governor nominate state Supreme Court judges subject to state Senate confirmation, following the federal model. If the Justices impose an undemocratic tax increase, the GOP should move swiftly to reform judicial selection.
In 2009 the U.S. Supreme Court in Horne v. Flores reversed a judicial funding mandate in Arizona because “the weight of the evidence” indicates that accountability reforms, “much more than court-imposed funding mandates, lead to improved educational opportunities.” The Kansas Supreme Court should take that logic and precedent to heart.
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