- Associated Press - Thursday, June 9, 2016

TOPEKA, Kan. (AP) - Kansas Republicans, irked by a court’s threat to keep public schools closed until legislators change the way they’re funded, are considering an amendment to the state constitution blocking such rulings in the future.

John Robb, an attorney for four school districts suing the state over education funding, derided the plan as “a crazy over-reaction” and “veiled power grab.”

State Senate Vice President Jeff King said Thursday that he is drafting a constitutional amendment that would declare courts cannot close public schools in education funding lawsuits. Several GOP lawmakers endorsed the idea, and Republican Gov. Sam Brownback is sympathetic.

Even if the amendment is swiftly approved by the required two-thirds majorities in both chambers of the Legislature, it would go to voters on the November ballot. That means the proposal will have no immediate impact on the Kansas Supreme Court’s threat that schools will not be able to reopen after June 30 unless legislators rewrite education funding laws.

Brownback called the GOP-dominated Legislature into special session June 23 to respond to last month’s ruling, which found the state’s system for distributing more than $4 billion a year in aid to its 286 school districts is unfair to poorer schools.

Schools are out for the summer, but many offer summer programs and meals for poor children. Also, some special education students receive services year-round.

Many Republican legislators were furious about the threat to not reopen schools and argued that the court has overstepped its authority.

“The people of Kansas want us to take off the table the option of ever closing schools,” said King, an Independence Republican who is chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee.

His panel and its House counterpart are having a joint, two-day meeting next week, and King said they’ll discuss his proposed constitutional amendment.

GOP conservatives also have in the past suggested revising language in the state constitution dealing with education funding or specifically prohibiting the courts from ordering additional spending.

“There are going to be a number of proposals,” said Republican Rep. John Barker, of Abilene, the House committee’s chairman.

Robb, the attorney for the four districts that filed the lawsuit, said King’s proposal would “emasculate” a constitutional provision requiring lawmakers to make “suitable provision” for financing schools. The Supreme Court has ruled repeatedly lawmakers to finance a suitable education for all children, whether they live in poor or wealthy areas.

Kansas has been in and out of legal disputes over education funding for nearly three decades. The latest round began with a lawsuit filed in 2010 by the Dodge City, Hutchinson, Wichita, and Kansas City, Kansas, districts after the Great Recession prompted lawmakers to back off funding promises.

The Kansas Supreme Court ruled in February that poor districts weren’t getting their fair share in aid. Lawmakers - facing a budget crunch and pressure not to cut aid to wealthy districts - rewrote school finance laws but didn’t change most districts’ funding.

The court rejected some of the changes in a May 27 decision ; lawmakers adjourned their annual session June 1 without responding. Brownback on Wednesday embraced a proposal to increase funding for schools by $38 million to help poor districts but said Thursday there’s broad interest in amending the constitution.

The governor acknowledged that the threat of schools not reopening grabbed his and lawmakers’ attention. But he told The Associated Press on Thursday: “There are other ways of doing that without holding the students in the middle of this constitutional challenge.”

Republican Rep. Randy Powell, of Olathe, a House Judiciary Committee member, said a constitutional amendment would bring clarity following a court threat he called “completely politically motivated” and “infuriating.”

“It’s unfortunate that we live in a world where we have to change our constitution to deal with specific issues,” said GOP Sen. Forrest Knox, of Altoona, a member of King’s committee.

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Also contributing was Associated Press writer Melissa Hellmann.

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Follow John Hanna on Twitter at https://twitter.com/apjdhanna .

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