Even with a long record of opposing taxation and overspending during her years as a U.S. senator from Kansas, Nancy Kassebaum Baker knows education trumps everything - including fiscal conservatism.
"None of us like to raise taxes," she said. "But we have to be sure we have the incentives to bring the very best."
Kassebaum Baker spoke Saturday at a Kansas University Women's Club scholarship fundraiser, and her focus - as was the case during her years in office - was on education.
Hesitant to talk about the gridlock over education funding in Kansas, she said only that sometimes, legislators needed compromise to make a system work, even if that meant going against core fiscal values.
"It's a tough issue, a divisive issue," she said. "I'd rather raise some taxes, because you can't do it with smoke and mirrors."
She voiced her views on education nationally as well. Tipping her hat to smaller government, she said she would not have voted for No Child Left Behind, a national mandate that requires elementary and secondary students to score well on standardized tests.
Like all mandates, the measure needs money to work, she said.
"Many times, the mandatory requirements aren't funded," Kassebaum Baker told the audience.
But in the long run, standardized testing isn't going to solve the nation's education woes anyway. Instead, parents and teachers need to instill children with a respect for learning, rather than simply doing well on tests, she said.
"We have to realize how important being educated is, in its broadest sense," she said.
Kids today need it, more than ever - not just for education's sake, she said. To compete on a global level, students must have a real understanding of history and culture both here and elsewhere.
The climate she sees in Congress today worries her, she said. Real education requires understanding different opinions, she said.
Lawmakers today are setting a bad educational example, she said.
"Certainties require a tolerance of someone else's certainties," Kassebaum Baker said. "We need to move toward answers that mean something for future generations."
To move toward those answers, the education that children receive should reflect an openness toward the rest of the world, she said.
Her time in other countries - both during her years in office and recently - showed her the perils of a society in which education occurs in a relative vacuum.
Japan, she said, has for decades been a closed society where education often suffers.
"That would worry me," she said.
But here in her country, her state, her worries continue. Her stint in office ended years ago, but her drive for better education continues.
She wants a focus on music, art and physical education in schools. She wants up-and-coming teachers to be looked at in the same light as medical students and law students.
Laura Burrows plans to focus on helping teachers teach. A KU doctoral student in higher education administration and a KU Women's Club scholar, Kassebaum Baker's speech hit home for her.
"She's right," Burrows said. "We need music and art. I absolutely agree with everything she said."