THE BLOG

What's the Matter With Education in Kansas?

04/30/2014 02:19 pm ET | Updated Jun 30, 2014
Carla Shutak

What's the matter with Kansas? Quite a lot, actually, but if I were to focus on one really big issue it would be education. I have fond memories of growing up in the rolling flint hills of northeast Kansas, and even better memories of my years at The University of Kansas. My perspective altered dramatically when I became a mother and began pondering the education my children would receive in this formerly beloved state.

The 1999 vote by the Kansas Board of Education in favor of deleting virtually all references to evolution, natural selection, and the origins of the universe from science curriculum was a powerful motivator when deciding to move out of Kansas in 2006. While this vote has since been overturned, the issue of creationism versus evolution is far from being resolved here in the heartland. In fact, my 7-year-old daughter was told by a teacher only two years ago that "the Earth is 7,000 years old and anyone who says differently is full of phooey." This statement not only contradicted the school approved science text, but offended my brilliant encyclopedia-reading girl, as well as her parents.

I am not an educator by profession. I am a mother to two very intelligent and impressionable young children. I am consistently offended by their experiences in the Kansas school environment, as well as the choices the elected officials make on behalf of the children of Kansas. This month Kansas lawmakers petulantly thumbed their noses at the Kansas Supreme Court regarding school funding regulations. This legislation was heavily backed by the Koch brother billionaires, who seem to dictate with their vast wallets current Kansas policy. Teachers in Kansas will soon be relegated to at-will employees required to negotiate their contract annually from a base salary of zero, and will no longer be required to have education certification. This is sure to attract the best and brightest to Kansas, right?

Kansas is fraught with a long history of education related legislation. The most famous is celebrating its 60th anniversary this year. I am referring to the well-known Supreme Court Brown v. Board of Education ruling. I believe it is important to note here this ruling took place because the Kansas District Court upheld the Plessy v. Ferguson ruling, claiming the separate educational facilities were equal, and therefore legal. Kansas was not ready to integrate the elementary schools in Topeka, and despite the lack of visible protest after the ultimate desegregation ruling, my observations conclude there are many in Topeka who would be content had the ruling never forced change upon the city. But of course they aren't racist.

Another point I'd like to make, one many people may not know, is in 1978 one of the original plaintiffs in Brown v. Board of Education reopened the case for the third time. They claimed the policy of "open enrollment" utilized by the Topeka Public Schools continued the practice of segregation. Unified status was not granted to Topeka Unified School District 501 until 1999. I'm not sure it's deserved yet.

Approximately 14,000 students attend school in Topeka's district 501, with 77% of those students considered low-income. Approximately 50% of the students attending these schools are Black or Hispanic, in contrast to the attendance population in the district of over 72% White and less than 25% Black and Hispanic. Where do all these White kids go to school? Not the public schools in District 501. Parents who work at other school districts are allowed to send their children to that school, and it is quite easy to apply for transfer out of the district to one of the surrounding, and higher ranked, districts. In addition, the tuition at religious private schools are inexpensive; allowing parents the ability to provide what they think is a better education for a reasonable price. When we moved here we were advised by many to send our children to private school. There was only one option that wasn't religious, and it was way outside our financial abilities. Governor Brownback's new legislation will provide tax vouchers for corporate sponsored scholarships to these private schools. In essence this mandates Kansas tax-payers fund private schools as well as public schools.

The First Lady, Michelle Obama, was invited to speak at the high school graduation ceremony for District 501 this year as a way to commemorate the Brown v. Board of Education anniversary. Keeping true to deeply rooted Topeka values, a petition citing space issues was promptly circulated by a graduating student in an attempt to keep Mrs. Obama from coming to the ceremony. This is an excellent example of the quality members of society being produced by the education system in Kansas. Best wishes to our esteemed First Lady as she visits this city. I, for one, welcome her. If the Koch brothers continue to have their way, and I suspect that at least in Kansas they will have no problem with this for the foreseeable future, Kansas public schools will be full of poorly educated, low-income, minority students while the corporate-funded religious schools churn out a new generation of science-illiterate, dogmatic zombies.

My children have attended both private and public schools in Topeka. They have had a total of ten homeroom teachers to date. Of these ten teachers I can only confidently state two of them have been engaged in their chosen profession and a positive influence on my children. That is a very sad percentage. Maybe the proposed property tax increase in a city already paying one of the highest national rates will help improve teacher performance and graduation rates. Maybe the constant threat of job loss will increase test scores and attentiveness. Maybe the minority of people in Topeka who are dissatisfied with current representation will eventually see the change for which they hope. I guess Kansas parents and kids will soon find out. Our children will not be here to continue their education in Kansas because we desire better for them.