School funding confrontation could spark constitutional crisis, warns NEJC official at MainStream forum

State Rep. Melissa Rooker told the MainStream forum crowd that conservatives in the state legislature wanted to drastically curtail spending on schools. "They truly do not believe that government belongs in the realm of education," she said.
State Rep. Melissa Rooker told the MainStream forum crowd that conservatives in the state legislature wanted to drastically curtail spending on schools. “They truly do not believe that government belongs in the realm of education,” she said.

The Kansas legislature appears poised to spark a constitutional crisis over school funding, a northeast Johnson County elected official warned Thursday.

Before a packed social hall at Colonial Church and dozens more viewing via a streaming webcast of the MainStream Coalitions forum on public education, District 1 State Board of Education member Janet Waugh said she was convinced the Kansas House and Senate will willfully disobey the school finance levels proscribed by a three-judge panel in the Gannon ruling, a decision the state is currently appealing to the Kansas Supreme Court.

“I believe the legislature is going to tell the Supreme Court to go take a flying leap,” she said. “The nation is watching closely because this has not happened in the United States.”

What might happen should the Supreme Court uphold the ruling and the legislature refuse to increase school funding is a matter of considerable debate, with potential outcomes ranging from criminal charges against state officials to the closure of schools. But there was strong consensus among the forum panelists — Waugh and House Reps. Barbara Bollier, Melissa Rooker and Nancy Lusk — that the ultimate goal of the recent moves by conservative legislators was to put the state on a path toward privatized education.

Rooker noted that she had been left off this year’s House Education committee because of her work last session to thwart attempts to weaken public schools, and that the majority of the Kansas legislature was comfortable with funding decreases for public education, which accounts for approximately 60 percent of current spending in the state. Such legislators, Rooker said, aren’t concerned with the massive income shortfalls that followed the passage of tax cuts in 2012.

“There is a group of people who think that the tax cuts that are in place are working beautifully,” she said. “These are the people who believe in shrinking the size of government, so they are having the effect intended.”

Bollier, who serves on the House Education Finance committee, told the crowd that a move toward privatized education would be a bad step for the state, which enjoys some of the highest public school rankings in the country. Extensive research suggests charter schools and vouchers would not be a good fit for Kansas, she said.

“Do you know where those schools are successful?” Bollier said. “In failing educational states. Kansas is not that state, for God’s sake.”

The full forum can be viewed below: