Remembering who your friends are
By Rod Haxton, editor
Gov. Sam Brownback and conservative lawmakers in the Kansas legislature want you to believe they are friends of education.
In order for that to happen they are counting on Kansas voters to have amnesia. We must forget that per pupil state funding was once $4,400 in the 2008-09 school year and today it’s tumbled to $3,852. And we need to forget that state funding hasn’t been this low since the 2000-01 school year ($3,820).
It’s also helpful to erase from our memories the mournful wailing that emanates from the legislative chambers in Topeka every time the courts rule that lawmakers are violating the state’s constitution by not providing adequate funding for schools.
Having eliminated those thoughts, the governor and conservative lawmakers want their new BFF to focus on a contrived brouhaha in which they are calling for the removal of former state senator John Vratil from a K-12 Performance and Efficiency Commission. Unless you’re a political nerd or an education geek you’ve probably never heard of the commission and have no idea what it’s supposed to accomplish.
The commission consists of political appointees from both parties, but Vratil - a Republican - finds himself in the politically awkward position of having endorsed Democratic gubernatorial nominee Paul Davis who happened to appoint Vratil to the commission.
Republicans don’t forget these things.
None of this would probably matter, except that Brownback and conservative lawmakers aren’t popular with the education community. They need to find some way to convince voters (you know, the ones with amnesia) that Davis is the real enemy of public education.
The quickest way to get the attention of voters - particularly those in rural Kansas - is to mention consolidation, or at least point a finger at someone who did. That’s where Vratil enters the political fray. In an article that appeared in the Topeka Capital-Journal in 2011, Vratil said that as the rural population declines, and school enrollment in those areas decline, school consolidation is inevitable. Urban areas with a larger tax base, he said, could generate resources to resist consolidation.
Those resources available to urban areas that Vratil alluded to also make it possible for them to continue funding programs even as rural districts are forced to make cuts due to declining enrollment and a loss of state funding.
“Rural school districts will be starved out of existence,” said Vratil.
Gov. Brownback and conservative lawmakers had little choice but to warn their new BFF in education that because Vratil has mentioned consolidation in the past, and he was appointed to the Commission by Davis, then logic dictates that Davis wants to shut down Kansas schools.
At least that’s what your conservatives BFF want you to think.
Vratil’s statement isn’t advocating consolidation or government policy. He’s stating an unavoidable fact.
And if voters in rural school districts - particularly in Western Kansas - haven’t seen this coming over the last dozen years then their attention span is worse than imagined. When Vratil describes districts being starved out of existence he’s describing a backdoor policy of forced consolidation which has been pushed by right-wing groups such as Americans for Prosperity and the Kansas Policy Institute and carried out by the conservative lackeys within the legislature.
No one dares to mention the “C” word because, in most districts, that’s political suicide. That would require a level of courage and honesty missing from a vast majority of our lawmakers.
The more desirable alternative is to force a slow death upon school districts by refusing to fund education, not only to the level required by law but failing to keep pace with normal year-to-year increases in the cost of everything from utilities to insurance to salaries.
Let’s say, for example, the customers coming into your business are paying you for your goods or services at the same rate you were charging 12 years ago.
Who’s the bad guy - your accountant for telling you that your business is slowly being starved to death, or your “friends” who know they’re not paying what you need to survive, but keep saying, “Don’t listen to your accountant. He just wants you to sell out to your competition”?
This is the predicament confronting Kansas public schools. Vratil isn’t the bad guy because he talks about schools being “starved out of existence.” Conservative lawmakers aren’t the good guys because they refuse to talk about consolidation even as they continue to defy the courts and cut education funding.
The only way many districts have been able to maintain their level of education - or simply survive - is by increasing property taxes through the local option budget (LOB) or capital outlay fund - or both. Of course, education’s true friends in the legislature have been more than willing to change the rules for LOB and capital outlay funds in order to allow local taxpayers to raise more money through property taxes. It puts more pressure on the local tax base while taking pressure off the legislature to do its job.
It’s a win-win for our cowardly lawmakers.
And this (if you’re still paying attention) is what Vratil meant when he talked about the advantages of urban areas and their larger tax base.
Vratil is simply describing what has been the game plan for conservative Republicans. He should know. He was a Republican in the legislature while this was happening. And now conservative lawmakers have the audacity to claim that Vratil and Davis are the enemies of rural communities and public education.
We can’t say why Davis appointed Vratil to the K-12 Commission. Maybe it was a gesture of bipartisanship. Maybe he felt Vratil was the most qualified. Maybe they’re friends and Davis values Vratil’s opinion. And, just maybe, it’s because Vratil is willing to be honest about the history of school funding in Kansas.
Conservative lawmakers are trying to portray Davis as some type of closet consolidation candidate.
In reality, these conservative lawmakers - many from rural and Western Kansas districts - are the ones who have put rural schools at risk by their refusal to adequately fund public education and their support of devastating tax cuts at the state level.
Today, Brownback and Company want to be your BFF. But where will your new friends be tomorrow when you are forced to close your school or inadequate state funding forces you to eliminate teaching positions or curriculum?
Just because lawmakers don’t want to mention the “C” word doesn’t mean they don’t bear responsibility when it happens.
And amnesia isn’t an excuse.
Rod Haxton can be reached at email@example.com
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