Opinion: Public education under attack

Another chapter in the long-running controversy between the Kansas Legislature and Kansas public education concluded on Sunday night when the Legislature approved a bill earmarking an additional $129 million to K-12 in response to an earlier order by the Kansas Supreme Court. Getting the bill through both houses was not an easy task and required the addition of a series of additional non-monetary provisions involving so-called “policy” decisions. In fact, these additions were included solely to placate the furthest right members of the Legislature and the policies behind them were never adequately debated.

The two most controversial of the additions to the bill included one that removed due process rights from Kansas K-12 teachers in regard to job security. The other provides a tax credit to corporations that make donations to private and parochial schools to fund the tuition of “low income or students from the lowest performing public schools” who wish to attend private or parochial schools. Both of these provisions are radical departures from current law and, in my opinion, are a bold attempt to weaken K-12 public education.

The abolition of employment due process rights from K-12 teachers is one that the vast majority of Kansas teachers view with great unease. The protests at the Capital and the media reports on the issue during the negotiations on the bill make this very clear. The reasons for taking these rights away are unclear. Some legislators stated that this would make it easy for school administrators to remove problem teachers, but there was no evidence given by school administrators that this is a problem under current law.

One legislator baldly stated that most jobs in Kansas are “at will” and that teachers should not be treated differently. Again, to my mind, this is a mistake. Many things that teachers do in the classroom may raise the ire of parents or school board members or others. This includes teaching areas of science like evolution or assigning books that may be politically controversial. Now that teachers can be dismissed at will without adequate legal process, many teachers will either be afraid to undertake these activities or will simply choose to teach in other states.

I suspect that the latter will prove to be true. As it is, most Kansas school teachers are poorly paid. The best of them may well decide to leave Kansas or teaching entirely. This is precisely what the state cannot afford to happen.

The provision that grants a tax credit to corporations also undermines K-12 public education. Unfortunately, it also means that public tax dollars will now be funneled to private and parochial schools, tax dollars that are desperately needed for public education. Even worse, the schools that may suffer most, those that are “under-performing,” may lose the students targeted by this provision to private and parochial schools and lose with them precious dollars that they need to improve.

The inclusion of these so-called “policy” provisions in the school finance bill passed by the Legislature are a mistake and will actually harm the very schools that the Kansas Supreme Court sought to assist. This is just one more step in the Legislature’s assault on public K-12 education in Kansas.