Sam Brownback, America's worst governor: He's gutted Kansas with an ultraconservative, religious agenda -- and it's getting worse

Brownback's extremist economics have the state in a fiscal hole. Now his nutty beliefs target our kids and schools

Published March 21, 2016 5:05PM (EDT)

Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback addresses the media about the legislative session during a press conference on Tuesday June 16, 2015, at the Kansas Statehouse in Topeka, Kan.  (Chris Neal/The Topeka Capital-Journal via AP) (AP)
Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback addresses the media about the legislative session during a press conference on Tuesday June 16, 2015, at the Kansas Statehouse in Topeka, Kan. (Chris Neal/The Topeka Capital-Journal via AP) (AP)

The Wicked Witch of the West (as in the Wizard of Oz) doesn’t have anything on Kansas Governor Sam Brownback and the state's ultraconservative legislators. Since 2010, they’ve been filling the skies with flying monkeys as they’ve increasingly waged war on public education.

For those state leaders who subscribe to supply side economics and many of the discredited ideas of Arthur Laffer, the privatization of public education is a necessary component of the march to zero income taxes and vastly reducing the size of the state’s government. There is no way to get there without drastically reducing the spending on public education, as it comprises the majority of the state’s budget. And significantly increasing the privatization of public education is the only way to do that and still provide some form of education to students across the state.

For many of the state’s ultraconservatives, private schools also afford the opportunity to avoid wasting everyone’s time teaching things like evolution, climate change, social justice, institutional racism or sex education. They could then focus more on ideological driven initiatives with little to no supporting evidence, such as abstinence-only programs, climate change conspiracy theories or other initiatives shaped to varying degrees by a narrow, conservative Christian theology.

In addition, there’s a large amount of money to be made from privatizing our public schools, and Kansas must look like a vast, untapped oil field of private school opportunity to those who operate and invest in private schools. The possibility of such organizations quietly lobbying our legislators on this from behind the wizard’s curtain would, I think, be an interesting subject of investigation.

We do know that the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), the Kansas Policy Institute (KPI) and the Kansas Chamber of Commerce (KCC) are not so quietly influencing and applying pressure on Kansas legislators. They also play the part of the Trickster, a mischievous, cross-cultural archetypal character often surrounded by conflict and confusion, with his/her own self-interests primarily in mind. Tricksters have often been used in myth and literature to teach us what not to do, such as spinning and spreading memes of misinformation, a common past time of ALEC, KPI and the KCC. Major sources of funding for these groups include Charles and David Koch of Koch Industries, Ivan Crossland of Crossland Construction and David Murfin of Murfin Drilling Corp. In addition to funding, they also provide their own form of legislative arm twisting.

What do these waves of flying monkeys that have been set loose on Kansas’s public education system consist of, a few of you may ask who’ve only just clicked the heels of your ruby red slippers and returned from Oz? Well, during the last legislative session there was the repeal of the previous school funding formula and implementation of the block grant, which reduced the amount of dollars school districts have available for day to day operations.

In addition, the Kansas Supreme Court recently ruled in favor of a lower court’s decision that the block grant doesn’t equitably fund all school districts. As part of that ruling, the court ordered the legislature to rectify this by June 30 or schools won’t be allowed to open in the fall. The ultraconservative legislative leadership has responded by proposing to simply redistribute the inadequate block grant funds for next year in a more “equitable” manner (robbing Peter to pay Paul). It’s questionable whether or not this will meet the court’s equitable requirement. Nor will it likely meet an overall funding adequacy question still being reviewed by the Supreme Court. This session they’ve also been working to expand previous legislation that essentially “launders” money in order to shift dollars from public schools to private (including religious) schools.

In true wicked witch fashion, the ultraconservatives previously eliminated teacher due process. Some legislators are also continuing their efforts to criminalize educators for teaching material deemed by them to be offensive, even if it’s been approved by their local school boards. They’ve moved local elections from the spring to fall, which is their first step in making city and school board elections partisan. The ultraconservative legislators continue overstepping their authority through efforts to eliminate the Kansas College and Career Ready Standards (KCCRS), which are based on the Common Core and NGSS, without anything ready to take their place. And the list goes on and on.

First they use their flying monkeys to break Kansas public education. Then they stand back and exclaim loudly for all to hear that public education simply doesn’t work. “Throwing money at public education” is therefore a waste of taxpayer dollars and hurts our kids. Privatization and “more choice” must be the answer.

And February saw another revenue shortfall for the state, coming in at $53 million below estimates. The governor immediately announced $17 million in cuts to higher education. Shortly thereafter, Senate President Susan Wagle called for across the board cuts to address the continuing revenue shortfalls, which would impact all education in the state. Yet the governor still refuses to entertain any change to the income tax cuts. But why would he? Its forcing us to shrink government with his presumable hoped for added “benefit” of increased privatization of public education. Ideology and ignorance, aided by greed and apathy, have been waging war on public education in Kansas since Governor Brownback took office.

The question is, what will it take for the apathy to turn to anger and action in mass? The 600+ email reaction to a recent school district consolidation bill, which resulted in the bill being tabled, provides a good clue – people have to feel the impacts on their own lives and tie it back to the ultraconservatives. So, will continued legislative and governor anti-public education actions, along with the efforts of public education advocates, create enough of a perceived link to our personal lives in time to generate change in the legislative landscape after the fall elections? Or even limit the damage done the remainder of this legislative session? Can we lift that bucket of water high enough to dump on the witch’s head? I don’t know, but it keeps me up at night. That, and flying monkeys.

By Marcel Harmon

Marcel Harmon is the Vice President of the Board of Education in Lawrence, KS (USD #497), was previously a member of the Kansas Review Committee for the Next Generation Science Standards, has an interdisciplinary background in anthropology and engineering and works for a high performance building consulting firm. He frequently writes on education and aspects of the built environment from an anthropological perspective.

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