TOPEKA, Kan. – Local school districts are branches of local government, funded by taxpayers.

That means taxpayers, either directly or through their elected representatives, have the power to decide how much money the schools get each year.

At least that’s the way it was meant to be.

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But many Democratic lawmakers around the nation, along with their teacher union puppet masters, despise that system.

They believe traditional public schools should have some sort of special right to be “fully funded” every year, and to determine for themselves how much money that should involve.

In their world, “fully funded” means annual raises and expensive perks for all union members every year, regardless of economic circumstances and the ability of taxpayers to fund such things.

The scariest part is that they’ve found a way to impose their will, and strip taxpayers and elected officials of their right to govern local schools, by using the courts to do their bidding.

The latest example comes from Kansas, where the state Supreme Court recently ordered the state to provide an extra $129 million in funding to public schools, whether it can afford it or not.

Suddenly schools in numerous states have become special budget priorities, with the assistance of the courts.

This is worrisome on two fronts.

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It’s a departure from the constitutional principle that state legislatures control the public purse, and work with governors to determine state spending priorities. That’s important, because legislators are accountable to the public.

This type of court activity also threatens to interfere with efforts to make public schools more accountable for their spending. The schools already spend a great deal, and continued interference from the bench will prevent taxpayers from disciplining them.

As writer Walter Olson of the Cato Institute put it:

“… A well organized, foundation-backed movement has pursued litigation around the 50 states urging courts instead to seize control of school funding in the name of ‘equitable’ or ‘adequate’ school funding.”

What is a fair amount of funding?

The situation in Kansas did not turn out to be quite as threatening as many expected it to be.

A lawsuit, Gannon v. Kansas, claimed that the state was violating a constitutional provision to “fully fund” public schools in the state. A district court agreed with that argument and ordered the state to spend an extra $4,492 per student – about $400 million more per year – on public schools.

The Kansas Supreme Court stepped in last month and ordered the lower court to reconsider its ruling.

But the justices of the high court still determined that the state funding is unequitable between rich and poor districts, and ordered the state to spend the extra $129 million on poorer districts.

As a result, Kansas officials may have to cancel approved income tax cuts for citizens, or take money away from other programs, to meet the court order, according to Olson.

Similar lawsuits have been filed in many other states, including New York, Louisiana, California, Pennsylvania, Colorado, New Mexico, North Carolina, Rhode Island and Washington.

Most of the legal action has to do with state government providing a fair amount of funding for K-12 public school districts.

But what exactly is a fair amount of funding? The answer changes every year in every state, depending on the needs of K-12 schools, and how those weigh against other state and local needs.

Every state and community has various services and programs competing for public dollars every year. Some of those services may be more important than others in any given year. For instance, a city may be hit with a crime wave and be in need of more police officers. But if the courts intercede on behalf of schools, making sure they are “fully funded” before anyone else gets any money, funding for those officers may not be available.

All government services are susceptible to downturns in the economy. When hard times hit, and tax revenues drop off, government has to go on a diet. But if the courts continue to intervene, schools would be exempt from the whims of the market, and would remain fat and sassy while everyone else is forced to economize.

Olson refers to such lawsuits as “examples of alternative methods of governance. Typically, successful litigation of this sort transfers control over an important issue like school funding from branches of government that are accountable to taxpayers and voters to a cluster of private litigators, expert witnesses, special masters, consultants, law professors, backers in liberal foundations and so forth.”

Predictably, this type of judicial power grab does not sit well with elected state legislators.

In Kansas, for example, conservatives in the legislature threatened to ignore any Supreme Court order to increase school funding by the original amount, arguing “it was the job of lawmakers, not judges, to appropriate money.”

“I think the bottom line is you still have a constitutional issue here as to which branch has the power of the purse,” Kansas state Rep. Kasha Kelley told the New York Times. “And clearly that duty lies with the legislative branch. I don’t believe that’s the place of the court.”

Who will stop crazy school spending?

The loss of control over public school budgets would mean a loss of control over school spending habits.

We’re looking at a scenario where schools will be allowed to eat as much as they want from the public trough, and other government agencies will be forced to fight over the leftovers.

The worst part is that, under those conditions, schools would no longer feel much pressure to end their wasteful spending. And they do waste a great deal of money.

Over the past few years EAGnews has published a series of reports from selected school districts around the nation, showing how millions of tax dollars are wasted every year on many things that have limited or no benefit for students.

Some of it comes in the form of regular school spending. In one recent year the Rochester, New York district (which has huge financial and academic problems) had 314 employees making at least $100,000 per year, totaling a grotesque $37 million. The Broward County, Florida district spent $599,166 on employee cell phone bills. The Richmond, Virginia district spent $448,997 on hotels around the country and $135,761 on a travel agency.

A lot of the spending is tied to provisions in teacher union collective bargaining agreements. The Buffalo, New York district spent $2.9 million on cosmetic surgery for employees. The Philadelphia district spent $15.3 million on severance pay for employees who left for any reason and $2.6 million on a legal services fund for employees’ personal legal costs. The Cleveland district spent $4 million for reimbursement to employees for unused sick days. The Detroit district spent $15.6 million on automatic, annual raises for just about every teacher, regardless of performance.

Local citizens and their elected officials can hold schools accountable for this type of waste, if they’re allowed to. But if the courts intercede and guarantee schools all the money they want, the waste will continue and taxpayers will be powerless to address it.

That will be a huge step away from democracy and local control of education. This trend must be stopped before our public schools are no longer responsive or accountable to the public, and therefore no longer “public” at all.