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Educating Kansas

What is the first part of politics? Education. The second? Education.  And the third? Education.

—  Jules Michelet,  Le Peuple [1846]

In a time when some would think the most important issue to confront U.S. citizens is the question of who will be the next president of the United States, it comes as something of a surprise to learn that school funding and bathrooms enjoy the prominent place in the intellectual discourse in Kansas. School funding, it turns out, has a prominent place but bathrooms are a close second and may affect school funding.

Sam Brownback has been the Governor of Kansas for the last 5 years.  One of his promises, when first elected, was to lower the individual state income tax rates for individuals.  In 2012, in fulfillment of campaign promises, he signed a bill that was projected to slash state income taxes  by roughly $3.7 billion during the following 5 years. In addition to lowering individual income tax rates, it eliminated, among other things, tax credits for food sales tax rebates and credits for taxpayers who work and incur expenses for children, disabled dependents or spouses. Although the cuts seemed draconian, the governor promised state coffers would swell because businesses and individuals would flock to Kansas in order to benefit from the lower taxes. It was an attractive prospect and its only flaw was that none of what the governor promised came to pass.  Instead of increased revenues as promised, revenues decreased.  And they decreased so much that school funding had to be cut. As a result of lawsuits that were filed by those concerned about their public schools, the Kansas Supreme Court became involved, to the distress of Republican leaders in the state, including Governor Brownback.  On April 4, 2016,  the Court said that unless the legislature came up with a constitutionally valid way of funding Kansas schools, “the schools in Kansas will be unable to operate beyond June 30.”  Responding to the Court’s order, on June 24, 2016, in a special two-day session, the legislature approved a short term fix that met the requirements that had been imposed by the Court.  In the next session, the legislature and the Governor have promised to come up with a funding formula that will meet with the approval of the Court.  School funding was not the only issue that kept Kansas schools in the news.  Transgender students are another and that issue became prominent thanks to the Kansas State Board of Education.

The Board’s actions were probably inspired by the failure of  bills that had been introduced in the Kansas House and Senate, each of which was called the “Student Physical Privacy Act.” The acts addressed the “natural concerns about physical privacy [of children and young adults] when they are in various states of undress. . . .” Among the stated purposes of the Acts were maintaining privacy, order and dignity in restrooms, locker rooms etc. at public schools and post secondary educational institutions.  To help insure that the issue was properly addressed by school authorities, both pieces of legislation provided that, if upon entering a locker room or similar facility, a student for whom that space was  appropriate, encountered a student for whom it was inappropriate (my words-not the legislature’s) the student had the right to sue the school district or university if (a) it gave permission for the offending student to use that facility or (b) failed to take reasonable steps to prohibit the transgendered student from using that facility.  The offended student could sue for up to $2,500 each time he or she encountered an inappropriately sexed student in one of those places and,  in addition, was entitled to sue for  damages “for all psychological, emotional and physical harm” the student suffered as a result of the encounter. The only downside to the legislation, as far as the offended student was concerned, is that the proposed legislation provides that a student only has four years in which to decide if he or she was offended by the encounter. Both Bills died in the legislature on June 1, 2016.  Not everything was lost, however. Here’s why.

In May 2016, President Obama issued a directive directing that students be permitted to use the bathrooms that correspond with their gender identity, irrespective of what a birth certificate says. Offended by this directive and left on its own by the Legislature, on June 13, 2016, the Kansas State Board of Education vocted unanimously to ignore the directive from the Administration, stating that local schools are in the best position to address the issues raised by the presence of transgender students in their schools.  Its statement said, in part, that: “We are firm in our belief that decisions about the care, safety and well-being of all students are best made by the local school district based on the needs and desires of the students, parents and communities they serve.” No one can be sure whether this approach in opposition to the administration will affect the state’s federal education funding for schools.  If it causes the Federal funding for schools to be reduced, the schools need not be concerned.  They can be confident that Governor Brownback and the legislature will do whatever it takes to bring the funding back to where it was before the federal funding disappeared-a level at which the State Supreme Court may again threaten to close the schools.

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