Kansas House candidates on the issues: How do we solve the K-12 funding issue?

Kansas Supreme Court file photo. Credit Kansas Courts.

The last day to register to vote for November’s elections is Tuesday — and advance voting by mail begins this week.

With Election Day fast approaching, we’ve been working to ensure Shawnee Mission area residents understand where the candidates stand on the issues facing our community.

A few weeks ago, we put out a call to readers for questions they’d like to hear the candidates running for the Shawnee Mission area seats in the Kansas House of Representatives. With that input, we developed a five-item candidate questionnaires — and all this week we’ll be running their responses.

Here’s question number one:

The legislature next session will yet again need to address a school funding formula that’s been deemed unconstitutional by the Kansas Supreme Court. What needs to happen to resolve the funding issue for the foreseeable future and keep the courts out of K-12 school finance?

District 14

Angela Justus Schweller (Democrat)

To resolve the latest ruling from the KS Supreme Court, the legislature will need to pass funding to account for inflation. Let’s stop aiming for the bare minimum and instead shoot for world-class schools. Keeping the courts out of the K-12 funding would involve addressing the needs of all student populations, as well as accounting for the changing conditions within individual school districts.

Charlotte Esau (Republican)

Did not respond.

District 16

Cindy Holscher (Democrat)

If we want to keep the courts out of K-12 school finance, there is a simple solution – adequately fund our schools.  Over half a dozen studies have been conducted to determine how much money is needed to do so; the lowest estimate put that figure at close to $650 million.  However, the legislature only approved $500 M during last year’s session.  Why didn’t the Legislature go ahead and complete the task?  It’s because there are still a number of elected officials (predominately Brownback/Koch brother allies) who really do not have any intention of fully funding our schools.  This next session they will start talking about the need to change the constitution to remove the part that says we will adequately and equitably fund our public education.  Think about that; they want to remove the provision that ensures our kids get a good education.  In the meantime, they are spreading false stories about waste, administrative pay, the cost of buildings and how much is being invested in our kids.   Don’t fall for it; these are all steps to their plan to de-fund our wonderful public schools.

Sue Huff (Republican)

We need to continue to work on a funding formula that will work for the State’s budget, and one that will satisfy the Court. I would like to see a Constitutional Amendment put before the people of Kansas to prevent future suits like this from impeding legislators from fulfilling their budget and funding role of the Legislative Branch.

District 17

Tom Cox (incumbent Republican)

In the latest court ruling, the judges gave very clear guidelines. They said the funding level of this year (Fiscal year 19) is adequate and the amount we have allocated will get us to adequacy except that we do not account for inflation since it was a 5-year phase-in plan. So we need to account for inflation, which I know multiple groups have worked on and then allocate those addition funds and the plan should pass muster with the court. I look forward to working to ensure that money is added and that we continue to
support our schools as strongly as possible moving forward. The easy way to keep funding out of the courts is to ensure we keep adequately funding it so there is no need for a lawsuit in the first place.

Michael Kerner (Libertarian)

The school boards will never say that they have enough. The court seems to be unable to determine what is enough, so they keep saying more and the Legislature responds by raising taxes. That is a death spiral. Pretty soon we will be chasing the most productive taxpayers out of the state. The absolute minimum that must be done is a constitutional amendment to block the court’s ability to order the legislature to spend more money. The school boards and the court have no incentive to ever say enough. A better plan is a different constitutional amendment that removes the state from education funding and gives the local school boards enough taxing authority to support their school via property taxes. I will depend on the voters in each district to be sure the schools have enough to function as the taxpayers desire. This gives each school board independent control of its level of service and no one district is ever forced to subsidize another district. With the need to fund schools removed from the state, that same amendment can end the state income tax altogether.

Laura Smith Everett (Democrat)

This last legislative session we were more than $318 million above projected revenue estimates, and could have paid for all school funding without raising taxes. While it’s clear that the court now believes we’ve taken care of the equity aspects of the issue, the Trimmer and Stogsdill amendments would have most likely pleased the court on adequacy aspects as well. Unfortunately our current Representative voted against each amendment, which would have tied funding to inflation. By tying school funding to inflation, we would ensure that the costs associated with funding public education increase based on a reliable economic index.

District 18

Eric Jenkins (Republican)

I believe that the rush to roll back income tax cuts was premature. As everyone knows, we were in a nationwide depressed economy and Kansas was experiencing its share of difficulties from lower tax revenues. Recent Federal Tax cuts, reduced regulation of business and consumer confidence has reversed the low revenue trend. I read a recent KS Star article that noted that revenues were more than $300 Million higher than projected. The State budget is enjoying the rewards of an economy that is turning around in a positive way. If this trend of increasing revenue continues, we should look at returning to taxpayers some of their hard-earned money. We should certainly look at reducing or eliminating taxes that are very regressive such as sales tax on food. I do not believe in the continued growth of government. Where does it end? If one were to compare the size of government and the number of programs with that of 50 years ago the difference would be staggering. Since then, however, this country has gone to nearly $20 Trillion in debt and people seem to be less happy about government than they ever have been.

Cindy Neighbor (incumbent Democrat)

We have an obligation to fully fund our educational system by Constitutional law.  There have been at least four studies done over the years that have all come to the same conclusion.  Schools were underfunded! Certain members in leadership did not like the outcomes and decided not to take them seriously.  After the courts gave the legislature time to establish a new school finance law, many discussions were held to reach an acceptable agreement. The courts asked for equity and adequacy.  

When the courts heard the response the first time, they were concerned about outcomes that were not in place according to the Rose Standards, and again, the lack of appropriate funding. During the last court appearance, accomplishments were made regarding outcomes.  The court presented what their main concerns were and gave the issue back to the Legislature to complete their task to properly fund schools.

There was an amendment brought before the House by Representative Ed Trimmer that would have brought us closer to a resolution, but the House voted it down three times.  Since the Brownback experiment has been repealed, state revenues continue to grow. There is enough money to now fund education and we need to act on it immediately and correct any other concerns expressed by the courts.  We need to remember we have three branches of government: The Executive, the Legislative, and the Judicial. The Judicial Branch is part of a checks and balance system. Their role is to interpret the laws made by the Legislature.  In this situation the Legislature has chosen not to meet its Constitutional responsibility and follow the law.

District 19

Stephanie Clayton (incumbent Republican)

The school funding formula itself has been found constitutional, but needs to be fully funded in order to fit with the rate of inflation. This is a situation that can be easily resolved if the legislature appropriates the funds needed, and, if necessary, reforms the current revenue stream in order to sustain the funding of our schools. So much of the future of education funding, and the functionality of the State itself, depends on the attitude of the legislature and the Governor. If we conduct ourselves calmly and cautiously, all will be well. Beware of those who rail against our constitutional obligations, or who seek to change the constitution (a directive which I do not support), or who engage in histrionics by declaring a so-called “constitutional crisis”. I’ve been proud to vote consistently to strengthen, public education, and hope for the opportunity to continue doing so for you. Thank you for allowing me to serve.

Stephen Wyatt (Democrat)

The court has stated what the legislature needs to complete to have the funding issue remain out of the court system, adjust the current model for inflation. To keep this issue out of the court system in the future the legislature needs to fund schools above the adequate minimums. To complete this Kansas needs to elect pro-education candidates. I am a former educator and know that education is the one of the most important issues that faces our state and funding schools is a top priority.

District 23

Linda Gallagher (incumbent Republican)

I voted for the school funding bills in both the 2017 and 2018 sessions. As a result of these bills, Kansas public schools will receive more than $800 million in additional funding through 2023. The Shawnee Mission School District will receive more than $15 million in new funding from 2017-19. Early childhood programs – including a pre-K pilot project, Parents as Teachers and the Tiny K infant and toddler program – are receiving $6.2 million more. Kansas schools are closer to being adequately funded than they have been since before the recession.

I am pleased funding was increased for early childhood programs. It is essential that we prioritize early education so our youngest learners will be prepared for kindergarten and for educational success throughout their school years.

The Kansas Supreme Court ruled in Gannon VI this summer that the 2018 school funding bill meets equity requirements to distribute funds equitably among school districts across the state. So, the current school funding formula is sound. It just needs some more funding to meet the adequacy standard.

I am confident the legislature will be able to address the adequacy issue raised by the court and appropriate from existing revenues the necessary extra funding to cover the cost of inflation over the next few years. The state’s monthly revenues continue to exceed projections every month, which should provide the funds needed to comply with the court’s ruling. The 2017 tax reform bill, which I voted for, restored balance and fairness to our tax system and stability to the state’s finances. We would not have been able to fund schools as we have the past two sessions without this tax reform.
Some legislators want to stand up to the Kansas Supreme Court and refuse to put more money into schools. They want to pass a constitutional amendment removing the judicial branch from having any oversight over adequacy of school funding. I will not support this. Kansas has three separate but equal branches of government for a reason, and it would not be right to remove the judicial branch from this responsibility. We need the judicial branch serving as a backstop for potential irresponsible, unconstitutional legislation coming from the legislative branch and approved by the executive branch. The way to resolve the funding issue for the foreseeable future and stop the endless cycle of school finance litigation is to adequately fund schools. Kansas students deserve nothing less.

Susan Ruiz (Democrat)

Every child should have equal access to quality education. We must invest in our children and give them every opportunity to succeed. Kansas’s issues with school funding are well known. It is time to end the court battles and fully fund our schools. Working within our new legislature, I believe there will be real opportunities to address this issue.

District 25

Melissa Rooker (incumbent Republican)

Education is one of the highest priorities for the 25th House District. I share this value and have been a relentless advocate for our students, our teachers and our schools. I have put pressure on reluctant legislators to fully fund our schools through a constitutional funding formula that meets the test for both adequacy and equity.

The Kansas Supreme Court found the formula constitutional in terms of equity in its latest opinion, but tasked the legislature with addressing the effect of inflation to complete our work on adequacy. Guidance from the court was very straightforward – appropriate additional funding to adjust for inflation in school years 2017-2018, 2018- 2019 and incorporate inflation adjustments into the schedule of future payments outlined in the 2018 legislation. The Court accepted the base funding amount, referred to as the “principle amount,” so the inflation adjustment should be viewed as the “interest” payments owed over time.

Once the funding targets are met, the state can avoid adequacy litigation by simply living up to its statutory commitment. The formula includes a method for distributing funding found to meet the equity test of “reasonably equal access to substantially similar educational opportunities through similar tax effort.” The key to staying out of court for equity violations is avoiding defiant legislative decisions to circumvent this mechanism.

Some are calling for a constitutional amendment to keep the courts out of K-12 finance. I am not. I cannot support any change to the constitution that weakens protection to our schools.

Critics say the plan we passed is “illegal” or “a failure” because we still have work to do. In reality, we averted a constitutional crisis and imminent school shutdown with the plan. A total of $823 million over six years, amounting to a re-investment of over $3.2 billion, has been commited to our public schools. The court accepted this as a good faith effort to meet our obligation but is holding the legislature accountable for phasing in funding over multiple years.

Just bringing a bill to the table and declaring it the right idea is not enough. You must be willing to fight for it. With 165 different opinions, fighting for good public policy requires a willingness to listen, collaborate and negotiate. We need legislators with the courage to put partisan politics aside, invest in public education, and do what’s right for Kansas kids. I ask for your vote.

Rui Xu (Democrat)

The good news is that in the short-term, the path to constitutional funding is fairly straightforward for the legislature; the Supreme Court has said that we just need to add in additional money to adjust for inflation to achieve the adequacy component.

However, while the Court did rule this current bill as ‘equitable,’ their wording leaves some doubt as to whether or not it will remain Constitutional. They say “equitable… under the present circumstances.” The first priority is getting our schools Constitutionally funded, but I believe we need to adjust along the way to ensure that we remain equitable.

We also need to ensure that we keep electing pro-public education public officials. If the House and Senate are filled with legislators who value public education, then the courts won’t have to get involved at all.

District 29

Brett Parker (incumbent Democrat)

The legislature needs to prioritize adequately funding schools as soon as the session begins. It is incredibly disappointing that this job was not done each of the last two years. As soon as an adequate plan is passed, the long term investments in Kansas public education must be maintained beyond 2019. This will allow us to end the lawsuits and provide a more stable footing for our budget moving forward.

James Todd (Republican)

Kansas has been in litigation regarding the current funding formula since it’s inception in 1993. This litigation has spanned Democrat and Republican (both moderate and conservative) administrations. I believe that Kansans are ready for the litigation to be over. Constant litigation has lent itself to a narrative disconnect. On the one hand, some (including my opponent) argue that students in Kansas have been deprived of a quality education throughout the litigation. The reality is that in Johnson County we have nationally recognized schools and people move into our school districts to ensure their kids have a high quality education. I continue to believe that it would be more beneficial if the Supreme Court was more deferential to the legislature regarding tax and budget policy on education. At the same time, the Supreme Court does have a role to play because education is a right in our Constitution and their rulings should be respected.

The Supreme Court has ruled that Kansas needs to come up with more support and the legislature has responded. More than $1 billion in new money has been approved for investment in education over the last four years. Included in this is $825 million during the last session for which my opponent did not vote. The Supreme Court did not put a dollar amount on what would satisfy their review standard until the last opinion, and in it they acknowledged the heavy lifting that has taken place before hand. The ruling says that the legislature needs to adjust it’s inflation calculation. I will work with Moderates, Conservatives, and Democrats to find a solution to inflation and hopefully bring the court case to an end.

Fiscal discipline is needed to ensure that the scheduled increases to education are fulfilled. I will be a responsible steward and protect the investment to education. Hopefully, we can then move the discussion on education back to allowing parents in the school districts the opportunity to vote for more money to put into their schools by either increasing the LOB or eliminating the cap on local support of education.

Robert Firestone (Libertarian)

Firestone has indicated to the Shawnee Mission Post that though his name will remain on the ballot, he will no longer be actively campaigning for the seat.

District 30

Brandon Woodard (Democrat)

Kansas has not constitutionally funded our public schools for an entire generation of K-12 students. The Kansas Supreme Court has advised the Kansas Legislature to adjust for inflation to bring public school funding into “constitutional compliance;” however, I do not believe that the bare minimum is good enough for Kansas. Adequate public schools are not the same thing as exceptional public schools, something Kansas was once known for. As I’ve often heard from voters at their door, our public schools give young Kansans the foundation from which they’re given an equitable opportunity to lead a meaningful life.

My commitment to public education is exactly why I’m the only candidate in KS House District 30 with support from: MainStream Coalition, Kansas National Education Association, Education First Shawnee Mission, Kansas Families for Education, American Federation of Teachers- Kansas, and Game On for Kansas Schools.

It’s time to do right by Kansas children by resolving the school financing plan once and for all. We do that by not only constitutionally funding our public school system, but by making investments in our schools to reduce class size, competitively compensate our teachers, and provide the counseling, nursing, and classroom support necessary to giving every student a fair chance at a quality K-12 education.

Wendy Bingesser (Republican)

I graduated from Olathe North and both of my sons graduated from Olathe East. I was on the board of Citizens for Excellence in Olathe Schools during the important 2008 school bond that moved the 9th-grade students from middle school to high school. My record advocating for my sons’ education should give confidence to Olathe and Lenexa families that I will fight for our kids in the Kansas House of Representatives. I am particularly interested in raising the average salary earned by teachers, providing tax credits for teachers that purchase classroom supplies, and emphasizing career and technical programs in our high schools.

The school funding dispute between the legislative and judicial branches of government appears to be entering its final stages. The seemly never-ending battle at the Kansas Supreme Court has created a lot of uncertainty for Kansas families. The most recent ruling in the Gannon case suggests that the legislature could come into compliance with the Constitution by accounting for inflation in the formula that was approved by the legislature in the last session.

The Kansas Division of the Budget has indicated that the state will have an ending balance of around $370 million at the end of fiscal year 2019. If the legislature is proactive and wise with their spending, covering the additional $100 million that is estimated to be needed to account for inflation in the education formula should be covered with already anticipated revenues. I am not in favor of additional tax increases on Kansas families.

Tomorrow we’ll publish the candidates’ responses to item two:

Should the Kansas Secretary of State continue to have the right to appoint the Johnson County Election Commissioner? Would you support legislation returning full authority over the Johnson County Election Office to local control? What other changes would you propose for the Kansas election system?