A Long And Contentious Week For Education In The Kansas Legislature

Feb 4, 2016

It was packed, hot and tense in the Kansas House Education Committee Wednesday at the Statehouse.
Credit Sam Zeff / KCUR

There seems to be a growing tenseness over the future of education in Kansas.

The fight last year over block grant funding was hardball and, at times, ugly.

Teachers felt under the gun and many decided to leave the state.

But educators say the attacks this legislative session feel particularly bitter and contentious

You could feel it in room 112 North in the Kansas Statehouse where the House Education Committee meets.

It was standing room only Wednesday for a bill that would consolidate school districts in the state. It was hot, there weren't enough seats, and the Capitol Police, who rarely leave entrance, were in the room.

Some people drove six hours for the hearing on whether to cut in half the number of school districts in Kansas. Few were in a good mood. In some ways, this one room, this one hearing, typified the education debate this session in Topeka.

"It’s just one after another of these, apparently the teachers are the problem with this state," says Mark Desetti from the Kansas National Education Association.

He’s talking about a string of controversial bills that have teachers, school board members and superintendents feeling pummeled.

In addition to the consolidation bill, there’s legislation that would expand tax credits to attend private or religious schools.

There’s a plan to create a state board to review local bonds.

Legislation that would take due process away from community college faculty and another that allows for the prosecution of teachers who use materials that might be sexually suggestive.

That was something nobody expected. "That was a surprise that it came back. It was last year’s bill that was bottled up. We thought it was just bottled up permanently but nothing ever dies over here," says Desetti.

The high tension has come as a bit of a surprise to Rep. Jarrod Ousley, a Democrat from Merriam. This is only his second Legislative session and his first on the Education Committee. A committee that not too long  ago might have been a bit boring is now a lightening rod. Ousley pulls out his phone to show 227 unread emails.

"Oh, I’m hearing from everybody across the state. My email box, being on the education committee, is overflowing," he says.

So the question many are asking is, why now? Why now for these very conservative and very contentious bills?

For House Education Committee Chairman Ron Highland, a conservative Republican from Wamego, the answer is simple. "We’ve been dealing with this for over three years and finally everything is coming to a situation where somebody says, well, I think we need to do something about this."

But because this is Kansas, politics is front and center in all education issues and in 2016 all members of the Legislature are up for reelection.

"There’s no question that the far right sees that it retains control of the Legislature right now, might not so much in the years to come, so why not go for it right now?" says Burdett Loomis, a political science professor at the University of Kansas, who leans Democratic.

He say the complexion of the Legislature can change by flipping just eight to ten seats from conservatives.

Highland admits the election just might play a role in all of this. "There’s always that fear, who knows? I don’t know. You can’t predict those things. I’m not interested in that, and I don’t care."

He also suggests that these conservative bills, prosecuting teachers, consolidating school districts, are distractions. "I think the bigger pressure on the Legislature right now is to come up with an actual school funding formula."

But no school funding plan has yet been advanced, and that fight could easily dwarf anything seen so far.

Sam Zeff covers education for KCUR. He's also co-host of KCUR's political podcast Statehouse Blend. Follow him on Twitter @samzeff.