40 Thousand Pathways to the American Dream
When it was ratified, the Kansas Constitution acknowledged the responsibility of the state to provide a uniform system of common schools and schools of higher grades for its people. Even before Kansas was officially a state, pioneers settling in harsh conditions pooled their limited resources to build our iconic one-room schoolhouses and hired a teacher. They knew then what we know now. Public Education is the foundation of civilization. As the needs of America expanded so too did the requirements and expectations of our public schools.
Earlier this year, I joined Kansans from across the state and marched more than 60 miles to our state capitol to raise awareness of the political assault on our public schools. Upon arriving, I sat in the statehouse and said to those gathered that we are fighting a war that we did not start, but it is a fundamental right that we aim to protect for generations to come.
In 2012, Kansas lawmakers at the behest of Gov. Brownback set the stage for the assault on public education by implementing a tax structure that is unsustainable. He called it an experiment. The structure made it possible for the top earners to pay no income tax while middle and low income Kansans pay into the pool while receiving less services. State revenues have steeply declined and public education has been on the chopping block like never before. Much of this economic mismanagement is defended by thick ideological rhetoric, while facts and reality are dismissed. Real leadership would require introspection and figurative heads to roll for the self-inflicted crisis we now find ourselves in.
Over 40,000 Kansas children will enter kindergarten in August. My daughter is one of them. On a recent trip to a local hardware store she joined me with a few dollars she had earned doing chores around our home. To my amazement, she wanted to buy a small ladder. Her rationale was that she could do more chores and earn more if she could reach higher. Today, in Kansas our state government has created a system of taxation that allows for those who have climbed the economic ladder to pull it up from behind and relish in their treasure.
Each rung on the ladder to the American Dream is laden in education and knowledge. Every dollar we invest now in early education gives children a better chance and saves taxpayers eight dollars later on. It simultaneously opens the door to more employment and higher incomes for working parents today. The evidence is undeniable that investment in education and expansion of early education is key to fulfilling the tacit goal of America, to ensure that our children can have a better life than we did.
A year ago, Gov. Brownback toured the state and repeatedly said he would fully fund all-day kindergarten. Ever since the “K” was placed in K-12 Public Schools, it has been funded at a half time rate. Nearly all Kansas schools teach kindergarten all day, requiring local school districts to pick up the tab on the other half. Gov. Brownback reneged on his promise.
Last summer, school districts across the state put together an application to apply for “Pre-School Development” grants from the U.S. Dept. of Education. America was about to invest hundreds of millions in pre-school or pre-K programs, and Kansas educators wanted to be ready. Then last fall, Gov. Brownback refused to sign the application, the final step in the process. $226 million was awarded to other states in December and Kansas would have been poised to receive between $15-20 million for pre-school development, but one man stood in the way of more than 40,000 four year olds receiving that opportunity. Pre K-12 should be the standard for Kansas, for the last 16 years every child in Oklahoma has been guaranteed a pre-school education.
To this day we have no clear answer why Gov. Brownback refused to sign the application to compete for those funds with the rest of America. No economic logic makes sense, so we must conclude that it was an ideological decision. Soon our Supreme Court will rule on the adequacy and equity of our public schools. Evidence points to underfunding, complicated by the extreme ideological decisions by lawmakers who want to pull that economic ladder up from behind them. I personally have witnessed the impact of extreme ideology as a soldier in Afghanistan. My generation has fought two wars and toppled two governments that were built on extreme ideology. Coming back to Kansas from those wars I never expected to be in the midst of another battle being instigated by extreme ideologues in Topeka. One thing is certain; this generation will not tolerate it. We have sacrificed too much and those extremists in Topeka need to understand that what they have done is simply wake a sleeping giant in form of parents, educators, and moderates all across our state.
Aaron Estabrook serves on the Board of Education in USD 383 Manhattan-Ogden and founded the Moderate Party of Kansas in 2012.
Aaron with his daughter at her Pre-School in 2014