Monthly Archives: February 2010

The Kansas Legislature and Kansas Public Schools

The easiest job in the world these days is that of a Republican in the Kansas Legislature.  Easier than a coin flip, their stance on any economic decisions by the state government is predictable and (seemingly) infallible:

If it costs the state government more money, the answer is NO.

If it costs the taxpayer more money, the answer is NO.

If it brings more money into the state government, the answer is NO.

If it brings more money to the taxpayer, the answer is YES.

Sounds easy, right? Not so fast. They still have to live with themselves in the morning, which is clearly the hardest part of their job. Or, at least it would be if they were actually concerned about more than just their political futures. Read on, dear readers. Here are three reasons that Kansas Republicans are hurting more than helping:

1. Budget Cuts to Kansas Schools Are Real and They Are Hurting Our Children.

Let’s assume that the first round of statewide budget cuts was actually a good thing. It’s not a bad way to reset budget priorities, cut unnecessary expenses, trim the fat, and make sure we’re spending money responsibly. I get that, and I actually don’t disagree. We’re in a statewide budget crisis and everybody needs to play their part.

You know, I would probably feel different if the goal of our elected Republican leaders was simply to balance the budget. That’s a smart, responsible, and worthy goal. But while they’ve been chiseling away at public school funds, Republicans have been handing out millions of dollars in tax breaks to corporations and businesses. So, by the end of the year, we’re in just as much financial trouble, plus we’ve given away the house as well. We’ve leveraged our greatest asset in the hopes that our new investments will pay off. That’s like paying only half your monthly mortgage so that you can buy more lottery tickets. Schools are solid performers, but new businesses are risky ventures. In times of crisis, risky investments aren’t nearly as wise as sound ones.

I’m not the teacher who thinks his school should be spared from any budget cuts, I’m the teacher who thinks that cutting my school’s budget so that you can give all the money away to businesses is a really, really dumb idea. Here are five reasons why:

1. Kansas schools rank among the top ten states in terms of student achievement, and in the bottom ten states in terms of teacher pay and state expenditures per child. Maybe the budget cuts would be more justified if our kids weren’t achieving as high as they are, or if our public schools were getting too much money to begin with. Neither of those is true, so it hardly makes sense to plunder our most solidly performing investment again and again and again and again.

2. Taxes are important, just not as important as children. A educated workforce is the greatest asset of every healthy economy, and when schools are forced to offer a bare-bones education, our kids won’t be as prepared to make good decisions as employees, parents, citizens, and individuals. Those business who are so desperate for tax abatements are equally desperate for employees with critical thinking skills, sound judgement, a good college education, and leadership potential. But these skills are the first to go when class sizes increase, resources dry up, and students fall through the cracks because the support system is gone.

3. Whatever we fail to pay now will only double our costs later (part one). If we don’t do a good enough job of teaching a kid to read in 2nd grade, we need to spend even more money in 3rd grade to purchase specialized reading programs, hire reading specialists and paras, create separate rooms for struggling learners, and pay teachers more for after-school learning programs. Since those extra programs and positions are the first to be cut, the kid falls even further behind in 3rd grade. And the cycle continues. When we cut school budgets again and again and again, we not only make it harder for that 2nd grader to learn to read, but we eliminate the opportunity for that 3rd grader to catch up. And the cycle continues until . . .

4. Whatever we fail to pay now will only double our costs later (part two). Kids who don’t succeed in school sometimes go on to become millionaires, but more often than not they go on to become burdens to society. Look, I know we’ve been saying this for years and hearing it again and again probably loses it’s luster after a while, but it’s true. Look at everyone in prison, everyone on food stamps, everyone on welfare, and everyone who requires or receives government support (other than the legislators themselves) – can there be any doubt that those who don’t get a quality education are those who end up absorbing the greatest tax dollars? Are there a hundred exceptions? Yes. Is the trend still clear? Yes. If we hate collecting taxes to support schools, wait until we have to start collecting taxes to support drug dealers in prison.

5.  I’m a HUGE fan of No Child Left Behind, but as long as Kansas accepts federal funds for its public schools (about 10% of the budget), Kansas Legislators need to do their part to make sure Kansas kids can pass those tests. If we threaten our kids’ test scores, we threaten the federal funding. That 3rd grader who needs a little extra help learning to read may very well be the reason that the state is suddenly burdened with an even bigger financial crisis when the feds pull their funding, which is exactly what happens when schools repeatedly fail to make AYP. It’s true – this argument shouldn’t even be necessary because Kansas schools are nationally known for offering more than just basic skills, but it’s time for our Republican Legislators to realize that they’ve got to support Kansas kids if they want to support accountability and federal funding.

2. Republicans in the Kansas Legislature are only doing HALF their job.

Republicans in the Kansas Legislature worship at the feet of the business community. That’s not such a bad thing – businesses drive our economy. But there are a whole lot of people out there, including 450,000 children in Kansas public schools who also rely on elected leaders to do right by them as well. It’s here where our conservative friends have completely and utterly failed all of us. Instead of finding a positive balance between business growth and government support, they’ve just decided to side with business and walk away from the children, the elderly, and the needy.

Like most Americans, I support the idea that government shouldn’t be in the business of being in business. If there’s a company willing and do as good or better with our schools, our elderly, our prisoners, and our needy, we ought to let them have first crack, especially if they can do it cheaper and for profit. But when businesses take a pass on supporting our communities, it is the obligation of the government to step in and support the unsupported.

And clearly, businesses aren’t asking for a shot at helping our state’s children, elderly, prisoners, or needy. So where are our elected leaders who promised to pick up where business leaves off? Well, they’re not here right now. They’re at home in bed with the Chamber of Commerce. Rather than serve as custodians of public good, Republicans have simply decided that those who aren’t in business simply aren’t worth their time.

It might be different if the Republicans were offering alternative solutions or new strategies to deal with all the social ills that continue to grow as a result of their negligence, but they aren’t even pretending to care. We hear them talk a lot about how lowering taxes will solve our problems, but when it comes to solving the problems that require taxes, they’ve simply shrugged their shoulders and walked away from their duties.

You might think that the Republicans in the Kansas Legislature would wake up and realize that they ARE the government, and that they have a sworn duty to serve every citizen in their district, not just those listed in the Chamber of Commerce directory.

It’s time for our conservative leaders to take a ride on the clue train and do more than just protect business interests. They pledged to do more, and their job is only half done.

3. It ain’t about taxes, it’s about re-elections.

During any campaign season in Kansas, the most horrible thing you can possibly say about your incumbent opponent is that he or she “voted to raise your taxes!” There is no greater badge of shame, and Kansas politicians know it. But in today’s anti-tax, anti-government, anti-anybodybutme atmosphere, our state house is filled with chicken-crap pansies who would rather hurt kids than raise taxes. Think I’m kidding?

Here’s one that ought to make your head spin and your skin crawl. When Gov. Parkinson proposed a tax on tobacco that a) brought us closer to the national average for state taxes on cigarettes, and b) specifically allowed us to pay our late state aid payments to public schools, the Kansas Republicans immediately said NO. What’s more interesting than their predictable answer was their refusal to even draft a bill that the committee could vote against (which is normally done as a courtesy to the governor).

Have the Republicans in the Kansas Legislature sunk so low that they would sooner protect smokers than children?

So what does it all mean?

Promoting business prosperity in times of financial difficulty makes sense, but the Republicans in the Kansas Legislature aren’t just pro-business, they are anti-anythingbutbusiness, which puts the rest of the state in a very risky situation. Rather than letting government pick up where business leaves off, they’ve simply walked away from the other half of their job – collecting revenue and spending wisely to invest in the future of the State of Kansas.

Shame on them. Not only is that not what Kansas is about, it’s not even what the Republican party is about.

We can do better for ourselves and for our kids.