Since when does school funding legislation have to come with a quid pro quo legislative tidbit for the Koch Brothers?
Here is some background for what happened in Kansas last weekend. The legislature had been warned by the state’s supreme court that the state’s school funding had slipped far from parity. The Court gave the legislature until July 1 to allocate more state money to the poorest school districts in Kansas. After all, one of the primary functions of a state school finance formula is to produce at least some movement toward equity—to ensure that funding in property-poor school districts doesn’t fall so far that poor children are denied basic services.
The formulas are rarely generous, which is why Stanford University education professor Linda Darling-Hammond pointed out that in 2010, the ratio of spending between property rich and property poor school districts was over 3:1. Darling-Hammond wondered, “what we might accomplish as a nation if we could finally set aside what appears to be our de facto commitment to inequality, so profoundly at odds with our rhetoric of equity, and put the millions of dollars spent continually arguing and litigating into building a high-quality education system for all children.” (The Flat World and Education, p. 164)
Today in Kansas, they are still arguing and fighting, and it’s not just in Kansas. In the four years since Darling-Hammond published her book, the rhetoric across our states has retreated from the idea of equity. Today we talk about school choice (privatization) and we punish teachers, which is what the Kansas legislature just did as a condition for raising the state’s distribution of funding to poor school districts to the bare minimum.
At issue in Gannon v. State of Kansas was a 16.5 percent cut in Kansas education funding since 2008, “accelerated” according to a recent op ed in the NY Times, “by a $1.1 billion tax break, which benefited mostly upper-income Kansans, proposed by Governor Brownback and enacted in 2012.” Just over a year ago, a trial court found for the parent-plaintiffs, declaring that cuts to school funding reduced per-pupil expenditures far below a level suitable to educate children under the requirements of the state constitution of Kansas. The case was appealed by the state, and the Kansas Supreme Court released its finding, for the plaintiffs and against the state, on Friday, March 7.
Last weekend the legislature responded to the court. Brad Cooper reports for the Kansas City Star that late on Sunday night, “The House and Senate passed a bill that spends $126 million to bridge wealth-based disparities in the school funding formula,” and, according to Cooper, “strips teachers of due process rights and promotes school choice.”
Basically the bill eliminates the tenure protections public school teachers in Kansas earn at the end of three years. In Kansas, what it will mean for teachers to lose job protections is described by John Hanna for the Associated Press: “Starting in July, teachers who’ve been in classrooms three years or longer but face dismissal would lose the right to have their cases heard and decided by independent hearing officers….”
The new school funding law also promotes privatization by setting up tuition tax-credits. According to Cooper in the Kansas City Star, “The reforms would foster school choice by allowing corporations to receive tax credits for contributions to scholarship funds so children with special needs or who come from low-income households could attend private school.” Tuition tax-credits are really just another form of private school vouchers.
There is widespread agreement that the anti-teachers union provision and the tax credits were added to the bill by legislators supported by the Koch Brothers through Americans for Prosperity. Cooper writes, “Urged on by conservative special interests such as Americans for Prosperity, Republican leaders pressed hard to eliminate due process rights for teachers.”
Jeff Glendening, the director of the Kansas chapter of Americans for Prosperity was quoted—framing the legislation as part of a fight between those who stand for children and those who stand for “adult” interests—by the NY Times : “We appreciate the willingness of the Legislature to place the interests of Kansas children over the welfare of the teachers’ union.” This kind of rhetoric is widely promoted by far-right groups such as StudentsFirst and Stand for Children. These groups try to imply that teachers, who have committed their lives to nurture children, are somehow a class of people working purely out of self interest. The rhetoric also fails to acknowledge that public school due process merely grants teachers the right to a hearing. Under the law passed over the weekend, in Kansas teachers can now be fired at will.
Scapegoating school teachers and promoting vouchers are at the core of the far-right attack on public education. In states like Kansas where austerity budgeting has become the norm, attacks on teachers unions have become a regular part of a national movement to reduce government expenditures and have education on the cheap. If teachers can be fired at will, it is possible to eliminate the more expensive, experienced teachers, cut costs, and reduce taxes. Tuition tax-credits promote privatization.