Thoughts On Recent Education Happenings
by Stephan A. Metzger
Hello everybody! It has been awhile, eh? To say a lot has happened in the last month or so regarding education in the state of Kansas is a bit of an understatement. In the last 24 hours the state legislature has passed a sweeping bill with potentially huge effects on Kansas education (more on that later). So let’s get this hot party train of educational reform on the tracks to funky station, shall we?
First let’s have a quick rundown of the relevant pieces of the hotly anticipated Kansas Supreme Court decision regarding school finance in Kansas. In case you have not heard, the legislature was told to figure out some way of restoring equity amongst the state’s rich and poor schools. They did NOT however require the state to spend the roughly $129 million that is required to meet current funding shortfalls. That is far and away the easiest and least controversial way of complying, but it is not a mandated solution. That point has not exactly been clear in the local news media, and it was kind of bugging me. Anyway, the court said you have until July to get something done, then the Appellate Court that ruled against the state last year will have the authority to determine whether or not the state’s solution is adequately equitable under the test proscribed by the Supreme Court. So it really is in everybody’s interest to get something that will easily pass the court’s test which is to essentially just toss that $129 million at the schools and say “here ya go. That was our bad.”
Of course, our legislature being a legislative body, nothing can be done easily, non-controversially, and without a few questionable additions. Thus we enter what the bulk of this blog is about, HB 2506. I should let my reader (not a typo. Hi mom!) know that my usually neutral stance on politics in the state might be dumped by the wayside. If you disagree with what I’m saying, good. That’s is basically the keystone of the democratic process (I will not get on my soapbox. I will not get on my soapbox. I will no get on my soapbox.).
So! What did this bill do. First of all it restores the $129 million that the state owes to schools for capital equalization and local option budget (LOB) equalization aid. Okay, that’s good. Pretty cut and dry, not a lot of room for controversy. But wait! There’s more! The bill also removes collective bargaining rights for teachers, provides tax incentives for private schools and their donors, and increase the amount districts can raise through local property taxes. It should be noted that the bill does other things, but I’m just going to talk about the above three lest this turns into a short novel.
Let’s kick things off with the more subtly crappy things this bill does. That would be the allowance of schools to increase the percentage of their budget they raise locally from 31% to 33%. On the surface it does not seem like a bad idea. Keeps statewide taxes lower while at the same time putting more money into schools. But like everything, that’s not the whole story. The negatives associated with increasing the amount of money a local district can raise themselves rear their ugly heads when one looks at the disparity between how much each district can raise. For example, a district like Blue Valley can raise huge amounts of money via a very small increase in the mill levy. Win-win. However a district like Oskaloosa or Valley Falls or Pratt or Rose Hill can only raise a relatively tiny amount of money through local property taxes. This would eventually create a LARGER economic gap between rich and poor districts.
The next facet of this bill that I think will have an adverse effect on statewide education comes in the form of various tax incentives for those who attend private school and those who donate to them. Again, this is a question of discriminating between larger and smaller districts and richer and poorer districts. Private schools may be a great addition to a large district with a vast array of choices. Choice is generally a good thing in life. If something better that what I currently have comes along then I’m going to ditch whatever crappy thing I have now for the newer shinier thing. The problem is that in districts where the only school for miles in any direction is the local public school that choice doesn’t exist nor will it exist. That’s really the whole notion of public schooling. Before public school, the only kids getting educated were those whose family could afford to send them to school. Public schools provide an education regardless of wealth, status, or location. Giving private schools incentives to move into various cities opens the door for a pre-public school society.
Finally the most controversial subject of this bill is the elimination of due process for teachers. Essentially this removes tenure. Tenure is a huge, loaded word for many people. For some it is THE reason public schools are horrible. For others it is a necessity for the protection of a teacher’s job as they strive to give each student the best education they deem possible. For me it is about more nuanced than that. There are unquestionably bad teachers who are nearly impossible to fire because of the protections that due process affords. However, there are most definitely instances (especially in Kansas) where the subject matter taught and the manner in which it is taught to kids might lead to a backlash severe enough for their termination.
The biggest knock against tenure is the following, “every other job in the world doesn’t get the protection of tenure so why should teachers?” A totally valid question, but one that doesn’t quite ring true. While it is true that in the private sector you’d be hard-pressed to find a job where after three years you’ve got it until you don’t want it. Things are different however, for the public sector. For most public sector employees going through a hearing of some sort is required for their termination from a contract. This is to protect public sector employees from the same things that tenure protects teachers. Politics. Think about it, if every time a new president came in he told the existing bureaucracy (currently at around 4 million people) to clear out and make way for his own 4 million people there would be bedlam. So while I get the frustrations of trying to rid a school of a dead weight employee, I also understand that these protections are necessary for the men and women who serve the children of our state.
If you made it through this whole post, congratulations! But don’t stop there. Do some of your own research, find out what you think about this whole ordeal. Don’t just take my word for it. I’m as much an expert in all of this as you all. This coming November will be one of the biggest elections in Kansas in years. The last election for the governor a whopping 49.7 of Kansans voted. Let me say that one more time but in bold. 49.7 percent of registered Kansas voters voted in the last gubernatorial election. That means, even if Gov. Brownback got 100% of the votes, he would have still had the support of less than a majority of Kansans. That, my friends, is totally unacceptable. So please, vote. Tell your friends to vote. Tell your friends to tell their friends to vote, and so on. Don’t let the winner of this election be the voice of the minority because the majority couldn’t be bothered.