A Long And Contentious Week For Education In The Kansas Legislature
There seems to be a growing tenseness over the future of education in Kansas. The fight last year over block grant funding was hardball and, at times, ugly. Teachers felt under the gun, and many decided to leave the state.
But as KCUR’s Sam Zeff reports, educators say the attacks this legislative session feel particularly bitter.
It’s Wednesday, 30 minutes before the House Education Committee will meet and room 112-North in the Kansas Statehouse is packed.
It’s hot, there’s not enough seats, and the Capitol police, who rarely leave entrance, are in the room.
Some people have driven six hours for the hearing on whether to cut in half the number of school districts in Kansas. Few are in a good mood. And in some ways this one room, this one hearing, typifies the education debate this session in Topeka.
"It’s just one after another of these. Apparently the teachers are the problem with this state," says Mark Desetti from the Kansas National Education Association.
He’s talking about a string of controversial bills that have teachers, school board members and superintendents feeling pummeled.
In addition to the consolidation bill, there’s legislation that would expand tax credits to attend private or religious schools. There’s a plan to create a state board to review local bonds; legislation that would take due process away from community college faculty; and another that allows for the prosecution of teachers who use materials that might be sexually suggestive.
That was something, says Desetti, that nobody expected.
"That was a surprise that it came back," he says. "It was last year’s bill that was bottled up. We thought it was just bottled up permanently but nothing ever dies over here."
Rep. Jarrod Ousley, a Democrat from Merriam, says he's been receiving feedback from across the state.
"My email box, being on the education committee, is overflowing," he says.
This is his second session and first on the education committee, a panel that just a few years ago was kind of boring--now, it’s a lightening rod. He holds up his phone: 227 unread emails.
"So if anybody is listening and I haven’t responded to an email, please be patient with me," he says.
So the question many are asking is, why now? Why now for these very conservative and very contentious bills?
For House Education Committee Chairman Ron Highland, a conservative Republican from Wamego, the answer is simple.
"We’ve been dealing with this for over three years and finally everything is coming to a situation where somebody says, 'Well, I think we need to do something about this,'" he says.
But because this is Kansas, politics is front and center in all education issues, and in 2016 all members of the Legislature are up for reelection.
"There’s no question that the far right sees that it retains control of the Legislature right now, [but] might not so much in the years to come, so why not go for it right now?" says Burdett Loomis, a political science professor at the University of Kansas, who leans Democratic.
He say the complexion of the Legislature can change by flipping just eight to ten seats from conservatives.
Highland admits the election might, just might, play a role in all of this.
"There’s always that fear. Who knows? I don’t know. You can’t predict those things. I’m not interested in that and I don’t care," he says.
He also suggests that these conservative bills, prosecuting teachers, consolidating school districts, are distractions.
"I think the bigger pressure on the Legislature right now is to come up with an actual school funding formula," he says.
But no school funding plan has yet been advanced. And that fight could easily dwarf anything we’ve seen so far.