The Battle Against Koch-Funded, Anti-Teacher Policies in Kansas

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Analysis Law and Policy

The Battle Against Koch-Funded, Anti-Teacher Policies in Kansas

Kari Ann Rinker

Teachers of Kansas stand poised to take back their state and undo the destruction caused under the leadership of Gov. Sam Brownback, with the help of his friends and funders the Kochs.

In spite of growing opposition to the unpopular and extreme policies being passed by the state’s conservative legislature, Kansans most generally stay at home and keep their opinions to themselves. This undue politeness, also known as “Kansas nice,” often renders the good people of Kansas silent. All of that changed, however, when the public school teachers of the state recently converged upon their capitol building in Topeka and collectively stated, “No more Kansas nice.”

The teachers’ outcry was in reaction to a proposed school-funding bill that was drafted to comply with a Kansas Supreme Court ruling. The ruling ordered the legislature to equalize school funding between districts by providing additional funding for poorer school districts. The court encouraged the legislature to revert back to the education formulary that had been relied upon for years to offset disparities caused by reliance on local property taxes. This equalization mechanism had been abandoned by Gov. Sam Brownback’s legislature during the recession, and instead massive tax cuts for the wealthy were passed. 

The court ruling was made in response to a lawsuit brought against the state on the grounds that suitable funding for schools, as required by the Kansas Constitution, was not being provided. Those who brought the suit did not view Gov. Brownback’s “real live experiment” with great fondness. His “experiment” to drastically cut state income taxes, with higher income earners receiving the highest cuts, and to offset those cuts by cutting core state services, is what precipitated the school funding lawsuit. 

As the Wichita Eagle reported last year:

Sex. Abortion. Parenthood. Power.

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Alan Rupe, the lawyer representing schools, argued that the Legislature’s own actions undercut the argument that the recession forced the cuts. Rupe said lawmakers cut $511 million per year from the schools and at the same time passed an income tax cut worth $2.5 billion through 2018.

In Kansas, the term “small government” has become politically popularized to the point of romantic adoration among those who prescribe to the notion. So the fact that the initial ruling was even being complied with by the legislature, to avoid the closure of schools, was met with some relief. Teachers and other supporters of public education welcomed the consideration and appropriation of additional funding by the state.

However, other components inserted into the initial bill were enough to motivate these teachers to spend their weekend at the capitol, lining the hallways ready to spend the night if necessary and leaving notes for their governor (who was conveniently missing in the midst of the debate). They filled the house and senate galleries with their hands raised. These teachers were not asking for permission to speak, however; they were demanding recognition and fairness for their profession.

These additional politically motivated and unnecessary components, which were crafted to appease their campaign financiers, included a reduction in property taxes for families that home-school or pay for private schooling; tax credits for corporations that fund scholarships for low-income students to attend private school; the removal of funding for the teaching of Common Core educational standards, which have been an anti-public school education rallying point for Tea Party fear-mongering since their inception in 2009; and the elimination of due process and tenure rights for school teachers. Due process rights for teachers, once teachers reach the point of tenure, can protect them from being fired under the auspices of a wide range of trumped up allegations and undue dismissals by offering the option to have a review of their peers prior to dismissal. 

These policy pursuits were not plucked from the midst of the wide-open blue Kansas sky, but rather plucked from the midst of an Americans for Prosperity policy paper.

Groups like the Koch Brother’s Americans for Prosperity, the Kansas Policy Institute, and the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) have been providing anti-public school talking points and encouragement to the Kansas legislature for some time now. That “encouragement” has come in the form of anti-Common Core consortiums, trips to Chicago to attend ALEC’s national convention, and lots of cash from the Koch brothers. Kansas is the birthplace of Koch Industries, and the Kochs have not been shy about pushing their conservative agenda here. In fact, their cash was instrumental in purging the senate of the moderate Republicans of which that chamber was once comprised.

It is somewhat surprising that an assault on public education took this long. Orchestrating such offensives, in fact, are one of the Kochs’ favorite pastimes and they have had lots of motivation to push for this reform in Kansas. The Kochs are already big donors to the private school Wichita Collegiate. As corporate donors, they will happily reap the benefits of tax breaks, while the common people of Kansas see nothing but a bleak fiscal future ahead due to the implementation of Gov. Brownback’s tanking budget.

The original education bill was extreme enough that the Kansas House of Representatives voted it down and worked in conference committee to remove the proposed defund of Common Core implementation of local school districts, along with the removal of the proposed private and home school property tax credits. The legislature did hold fast to presenting and passing a final bill that includes the corporate scholarship tax credits and the elimination of teacher tenure. While the furthering of Kansas corporate welfare at a time when inequity and underfunding in the public school system exists appears seemingly untenable, the attack on the due process rights of beloved and respected schoolteachers is seen as abhorrent

The backlash of Kansans has been swift and quite public. Legislative leaders scrambled to defend the bill, claiming that it “wasn’t as harsh as portrayed.” Then later in the week were forced to recant their statement and admit that the “district is no longer required to document specific reason for the termination.”

Teachers are understandably fearful about their future ability to teach, work, and thrive in Kansas with great uncertainty about the true effects that the legislation will have upon their contracts. Thomas Witt from the state’s gay rights advocacy group, Equality Kansas, relayed the following concern to lawmakers regarding the legislation:

In my work as executive director for Equality Kansas, I have talked to several teachers whose jobs were threatened when their building or district administrators discovered they were gay or lesbian. These are fine teachers, who were targeted for dismissal for no other reason than their sexual orientation. It was only through the exercise of their due process rights that they were able to keep their jobs, their careers, and their professional reputations.

Meanwhile, the underlying fiscal intent of the bill, to rectify inequities in the system, is being called into question and districts are predicting layoffs. It would seem that the only place where the Kansas legislature succeeded was in alienating a great deal of Kansans and providing them with greater incentive to vote, volunteer, and contribute to moderate, pro-education candidates in November’s election.

This should be cause for concern for the governor, as he stands in defense of these anti-teacher policies. National headlines speculate upon the political fallout, and polling has continued to show his challenger, Paul Davis, taking a lead and vowing to continue his support of public education.

It looks as if “Kansas nice” will continue to be on hiatus, at least through election season, as the teachers of Kansas stand poised to take back their state and undue the destruction caused under the leadership of Gov. Sam Brownback, with the help of his friends and funders the Kochs.