Wednesday, July 06, 2005

Meanwhile, Back in Kansas

“For every one pupil who needs to be guarded from a weak excess of sensibility there are three who need to be awakened from the slumber of cold vulgarity. The task of the modern educator is not to cut down jungles but to irrigate deserts. The right defence against false sentiments is to inculcate just sentiments. By starving the sensibility of our pupils we only make them prey for the propagandist when he comes. For famished nature will be avenged and a hard heart is no infallible protection against a soft head.”

- C.S. Lewis – Commenting on the state of twentieth century education in “The Abolition of Man”

It’s back to business as usual here in Kansas. I’ve had a brief one day flirtation with blogging’s versions of yellow journalism with my piece about Al Gore. Nancy wasn’t too happy with it, not so much because she’s an Al Gore fan, but because she thought the antics displayed were beneath me. I tried the evil twin routine with her to explain my behavior, but it didn’t work. So, I’m back to being just me. I do have to admit, though, that it was fun while it lasted. The post generated more comments than I expected. I think some commenters saw the flames emanating from Al’s mouth and went no further. Clearly, I’d hit a raw, sacred nerve in some. I’ve thought about an apology of some sort for ruffling feathers, but it would be meaningless. It was done all in fun, and it was fun!

Here in Kansas the legislature is still deadlocked. The state Supreme Court’s ruling on school funding has not gone over well. It seemed last week that a compromise was reached on the dollars. The senate passed a bill that would have allocated an additional 148 million big ones to education, which was more than the court “required” in its ruling. But once the bill got to the house things stalled. Conservatives, the majority, wanted the funding bill attached to another bill which would more clearly define legislative versus judicial responsibilities. Democrats and “moderate” Republicans then joined forces to prevent a super majority from passing the funding bill and its accompanying bill outlining political responsibilities.

Over the weekend I spent a few minutes speaking with Peggy Long-Mast, one of our state representatives. While she doesn’t represent my district, I know Peggy as a member of our church here. I asked her on Sunday the question that’s on all of our minds – “Is there going to be some sort of compromise reached?” Like other legislators she told me that she hoped so, but that there were some wide gulfs to be bridged before that could happen. The big issue for her, and other conservative legislators, is the court’s involvement in funding. She, like other conservatives, supports an amendment to the Kansas constitution that would more clearly spell out the provisions of article 2, section 24, of the state constitution which states that “No money shall be drawn from the treasury except in pursuance of a specific appropriation made by law.” To Peggy this is critically important because she believes that the court has overstepped its appointed reach in this case. If the court can appropriate, by ruling, as they did in this case, then the precedent has been set for the court to continue to make these kinds of rulings in the future. Without an amendment clarifying article two the court has effectively eliminated the need for the legislature.

That’s the crux of the issue as conservative legislators see it.

I also spent about thirty five minutes speaking with Don Hill, my representative in the legislature. Don is a moderate who does not support the article two amendment. He told me that, while he was concerned with the court’s reach, he did not believe that the issue was important enough to attach to the school funding bill. I asked what the precedent the court had set might mean. “Could it mean?” I asked, “That a private citizen could sue the state over an issue of funding for a social service agency” and replied that it could. “Could it mean that the court could then mandate additional funding and express the additional amount to be allocated if the court ruled in favor of the plaintiffs?” He responded that it could. I also asked why he couldn’t allow the school funding bill to go forward along with the constitutional amendment bill. I don’t believe he answered the question. I did find out that he was concerned and hoped a compromise could be worked out. That’s as far as it went.

I’ve mentioned that to demonstrate much of what you’ve heard in national media where you live is close the same things we hear here in Emporia. It’s the conservatives, as the media portray it, who are attempting to get in the way of education. But I’ve heard from both sides now and it has become clear to me that the moderates are anything but moderate here. The conservatives are willing to fund education. The moderates say they are, but they are unwilling to do so as long as the amendment bill is coupled with it. I could almost see their unwillingness to do so if they, like Representative Hill, said they weren’t worried about the court at all. But my representative told me directly that he was and that the issue was important. Does that seem strange to you? It does to me.

This is all coming on the heels of the United States Supreme Court decision on eminent domain that I commented on about a week ago. The courts, it seems to me, are becoming more and more powerful, the legislatures are becoming weaker, and the potential for judicial abuse is becoming a real issue for me. The highest court in this land has determined that corporate property interests can trump mine and the Kansas Supreme Court has ruled in essence that it can mandate spending and specify the amounts to be spent. That gives the courts a unwanted hand on my wallet. I called those who ruled for the corporate interests in the national case pickpockets. I feel the same about the Kansas court as well.

I’m told that the devil is in the details. I believe it’s so in the case of Kansas education. When I asked how the court arrived at the amount to be appropriated both Peggy and Don told me that it stemmed from a study conducted by Augenblick and Myers in 1999 and submitted to the Kansas Board of Education as an executive summary in 2001. The second study was principally gravy, but I found a bit of meat once I was able to dig into the report. The funding proposal mandated by the court rested on one assumption in the summary – money:

“Using regression analysis allows us to see how pupil performance and per pupilspending are influenced by the proportion of pupils eligible for free and reduced pricelunches and the wealth or enrollment level of a school district. The regressionequations accounted for 73 percent of the variation in per pupil performance and 80percent of the variation in per pupil spending. Given that those levels are high but notperfect, we established confidence intervals around predicted levels of performance andspending to be sure that appropriate districts were identified as being low in performance or high in spending.”

That may not have been the intent of the study, but that’s what the plaintiff in the case (Montoy) and the court seized upon. The argument made was that some school districts in Kansas were, for one reason or another, being under funded. The plaintiff and the Kansas Supreme Court seem to have won. The rest of us will now have to dig further into our wallets. And, based on the precedent set, we may have to keep digging. I don’t know what the number of lawyers is per capita in Kansas, but I’m sure there are enough to make mischief for the rest of us for years to come. It’s not out of the realm of possibility that social welfare agencies will be suing on behalf of clients. And, who knows, maybe construction companies working on our infrastructure will find batteries of lawyers to sue on their behalf. We, the voters, may try to nix these attempts at theft at the ballot box, but then the plaintiffs and lawyers will waltz in and lift the money from us while we’re doing this political dance with them.

As I said, the schools will be getting the additional money. I have no doubt about it. But I also have no doubt that the money will not produce the results promised. The schools can present all the regression analysis they want. I’ve the pie charts and the graphs many times before. I spent a good part of my professional career doing that sort of analysis and can say with one hundred percent certainty that the scheme linking student performance to per pupil expenditure is nothing more than “garbage in-garbage out.”

So, that’s what the battle here in Kansas is all about. It’s not about conservatives refusing to educate their children. It’s about property and theft.

But, until the all the smoke clears, the media will continue to portray Kansas conservatives as uncaring, knuckle-dragging Neanderthals. Based on C.S. Lewis’s prophecy of sorts I used in my introduction, much of the public is falling for the propaganda. The media has “educated” their audiences well. Like Orwell’s 1984, right has become wrong in this issue. Up has become down. The moderates stonewall and say they are compromising. The conservatives attempt to compromise and are being castigated as stonewallers.

I’d be willing to bet that those of you reading this post who live in other parts of the country have already lost battles like this. You’ve been through it before and you’re now paying the price. We in Kansas are just now, thanks to Montoy and the Kansas Supreme Court, catching up with you.

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