By Amanda Litvinov
No one is more familiar with the old saw “one step forward, two steps back” than public school advocates in the state of Kansas since several key moderate lawmakers lost their seats in the 2012 election.
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Take the recent state Supreme Court decision regarding school funding. On the surface, the decision that deemed the state’s funding among districts inequitable and therefore unconstitutional would seem a victory for public education.
One step forward.
But the conservative-controlled legislature—with a strong faction of American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) members—and Gov. Sam Brownback responded with an education finance bill that not only is unlikely to improve the issue of inequitable funding, but also strips away educator rights and puts corporate interests before those of students.
Two steps back.
A lower court will decide whether Kansas’ school funding is adequate overall (an earlier decision found it $450 million short), but education advocates aren’t waiting. They are taking to the streets now, determined to march forward until the November elections and beyond to restore the state’s public schools.
Michael Hill is one of those educators. The Nemaha Central High School art teacher put his boots on the ground and attended several rallies this spring.
“We were there the day the state legislature was pushing through the education finance bill,” said Hall. Hundreds of educators and parents were at the capitol in Topeka on April 5.
“It was great to see educators stand together and say, ‘We’re here, we matter, and we care about education and the future of our kids in our state.'”
Hill and his students have already experienced the effects of state budget cuts that have reduced K-12 education spending in Kansas by 16.5 percent since 2008, according to the nonpartisan Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. Many rural schools like the one where he teaches in Seneca have been forced to consolidate. For students it means fewer teachers and larger class sizes at a drastically larger school; for the community it means losing not only jobs, but an entity that in many ways is the heart of a small town.
Hill’s district stands to lose even more at the end of next year when the budget levels that were locked in as an incentive to consolidate will drop to the paltry funding other districts receive.
“As an arts educator I always worry because when budgets get tighter, who is going to be the first to go? Who are they going to see as expendable?”
The November elections, he says, offer the best opportunity for education advocates like him to put their foot down by voting out of office elected officials who have promoted legislation that hurts schools.
“This election could be a turning point for Kansas. It’s going to take everyone getting out and voting and understanding who they’re voting for, which is a daunting task in the Koch brothers’ home state. But our efforts will only increase over the next several months.”
“Our state elections couldn’t be more important than they are this year,” said Heather Ousley, Kansas mom and co-founder of the parent group Game On for Kansas Schools.
“We simply have to have a new group of people to work with, people who truly value public education and won’t divert public funds to corporate interests,” she said in reference to the amendment to the education finance bill that established tax credits of up to $10 million for corporations that make donations to scholarships to religious and unaccredited private schools.
“And to pay for it they took $8 million from programs for at-risk kids who really need them,” she said.
The mother of three was outraged that legislators acted under the cover of darkness by adding late-night amendments to a funding bill. None of the amendments had a hearing in both chambers and none had ever passed even one chamber.
Another harmful amendment took away due process, which means teachers and education support staff can be fired without a hearing. They don’t even have to be given a reason, leaving educators who advocate for resources for students or report safety violations or hold high standards for student performance without protection.
“Of course we knew this legislative session would be tough, because it’s the same players we had to work with last year,” said Ousley. That’s why she once again walked 60 miles from her home outside of Kansas City to the state capitol in Topeka. This time five other parents and a teacher joined her.
“We knew doing the walk again would raise awareness, and it turned out that when we arrived at the capitol on the 31st of March, the funding bill was in the House appropriations committee,” said Ousley. She was also at the rally Hill attended on April 5, the day before the bill was passed.
“The theory that the dominant group of lawmakers and the governor hold that income tax cuts and massive tax breaks for corporations are going to create a business friendly environment that will generate plenty of revenue for schools isn’t working,” she said.
“We have to address the fact that we’re in trouble. We’re not going to wait until the state is in total ruins and say, okay, now we’ve truly failed our children. Parents and educators have to draw a line before that happens.”