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Legislators and Judges on K-12 Funding: Tussles Over the Balance of Power

One of the biggest questions about education spending is whether the Kansas Supreme Court will rule that the state has not been funding public schools as the state constitution requires. If the court does so, it sets up a very sticky fight in the legislature, which is controlled by Republicans and may be extremely reluctant, if not downright hostile, to the idea of significantly increasing K-12 spending to meet a court mandate. 

What about a state that's had to deal with such a ruling for some time? Washington state is a little bit different, at least in terms of the partisan backdrop, since Democrats largely have the reins of power in state government. But ever since the Washington Supreme Court ruled in January 2012 that the state had six years to dramatically overhaul (and increase) its K-12 budget, lawmakers have been struggling to comply with the ruling.

The court, meanwhile, hasn't been shy about firing off its views about how well the legislators are complying with the ruling. The justices have released three such orders assessing the state's efforts to comply with the McCleary v. State of Washington ruling. Here's a sample from their most recent order on Jan. 9: "We have no wish to be forced into entering specific funding directives to the State, or, as some state high courts have done, holding the legislature in contempt of court. But, it is incumbent upon the State to demonstrate, through immediate, concrete action, that it is making real and measurable progress, not simply promises." (Read the full order below.)

By April 30, the court says, the state must show the how it will comply with the various aspects of McCleary as of the 2017-18 school year. 

That brings us to comments from both Democratic and Republican state lawmakers about how the court's been acting. GOP Sen. Michael Baumgartner said that while lawmakers will continue to add resources for K-12, the justices have been "way out of their lane" and potentially upsetting the balance of power in the state between the legislature and the court. And Democratic Sen. Jim Hargrove argued that the justices simply don't have the capacity to accurately scrutinize budget issues like state lawmakers do. (One supreme court justice, James Johnson, who dissented from the original McCleary decision, essentially agrees with these two lawmakers.)

"This could be downright nasty," said Phil Talmadge, a lawyer who's worked at both the legislature and the state supreme court, of the bubbling ill-will between the two branches of government. 

It's possible that if the Kansas court decision cuts the same way as McCleary, many more lawmakers there could react like Baumgartner and Hargrove have, and perhaps much more vociferously.

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