Revolution in a Cornfield – Transcript

March 8, 2016
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It’s probably been awhile since you were in first grade. But some things haven’t changed too much.

AMBI MONTINI’S CLASS

This is Mrs Montini’s class at Mark Twain Elementary School in Kansas City, Kansas. Seventeen truly adorable six-year-olds are eating marshmallow hearts while Mrs Montini counts backward….

MONTINI AMBI COUNTING

Three… two,… one…

Her students quickly arrange themselves, cross-legged on an alphabet-letter carpet — ready to read Pete the Cat.

MONTINI

Who are we studying this week??

Kids: PETE THE CAT!!

Like the rest of the U.S., the demographics of Kansas are changing. Kansas City — which was historically a mix of white and black working class families — is  now home to a lot of families that have recently immigrated to the US. English is the second — sometimes third — language of all 17 students.  

Many of the kids in Mrs. Montini’s class live in poverty — they receive free or reduced lunch at school, plus breakfast and an afternoon snack. Some of their smiles flash with tiny metal caps that cover rotting baby teeth.

A student named Denis has only been in Kansas and in class for a month. His black hair flops softly over his forehead as he reaches down to play with his shoes. His eyes flash from nervous curiosity to excitement. Denis a refugee from Burma and is studying English for the first time.

MONTINI: Everyone try this part with me…. read that…

KIDS: Just do your best, she said..Just tell Larry why he is cool. There is something cool about every cat.

When the class reads along with Mrs Montini, Denis’ mouths the words, too.

MONTINI: Denis, Do you know what this is? Say, ‘a car’

Denis: A car

Monition: So rob likes… cars can you say that?

Denis: C….

Montana: Try that… Rob likes cars…

But this isn’t just a classroom where a diverse group of kids are learning to read. This classroom and many others are at the heart of a debate about how much money Kansas should put into public schools–a debate that comes down to a fight over nothing less than  the balance of power among the three branches of government.

Yeah. So, let’s work backwards.

Last year, Kansas’ governor, Sam Brownback, cut K-12 education funding by about 41 million dollars.And at Mark Twain Elementary, Katie Egidy saw how the cuts affected  her students. Egidy’s been the principal here for eight years.

EGIDY

We have less personnel to do the job that we need to do. And I would argue more needy population than we’ve had. So a needier population and less personnel to do the job.

For example, Egidy says, there are 29 kids in each of the third grade classes — and 25 kids in each of the school’s two kindergartens. In previous years, Egidy would have hired another teacher and split the classes up. But this year, Egidy says, there isn’t enough money. So the kids stay put and teachers make due.

Last year, in addition to the funding cuts, the Legislature got rid of the school funding formula the state had used for decades and froze each school’s funds in place for the next two years.

It’s the beginning of February, and Egidy says things feel strained. Just today, a little girl named Jessy from Guatemala started fourth grade. Jessy speaks no English, but within a year she will be expected to perform like a native speaker. Egidy worries that the money for extra support — like tutors or another Spanish aid — isn’t there. It’s likely the little girl won’t score well at all on national reading or math tests.

EGIDY

It is one thing to come to Kindergarten with limited English — but when you come at a higher grade level, it’s hard to, how do you really get onboard? Especially when you compile that with less staffing.

Ten minutes into our interview, Egidy’s eyes fill with tears. She says she feels intense pressure to do more with less money.

EGIDY

I think it is overwhelming to look at all the needs — be they poverty or education.

Egidy gets up and closes the door to the conference room — she doesn’t want her staff to see her cry.

EGIDY

My little Denis. He needs everything.

For a refugee like Denis, Egidy says, Mark Twain Elementary serves as not just his, but his family’s first source of education about life in the U.S. Egidy says the school often helps new families find a place to live, feed their children, and understand American laws and customs.

EGIDY

So it’s a whole wrap around need — medical services, dental services, vision services — it’s really big, if you look at it, it’s really big.

The county where Egidy’s school is  — Wyandotte — is the both the most diverse county in the Kansas and the poorest. More than 81 percent of students receive free and reduced lunch. The superintendent of the school system — Cynthia Lane — says she thinks about this often, especially in the winter, when she has to decide whether or not to close schools for a snow day….

LANE

For me, there’s another decision that really makes it more difficult to close schools — it’s the fact that many of our children won’t have food, the day that the school is closed, they count on coming to school for their meals.

Lane has worked in the Kansas City Kansas School system on and off for 30 years. She and her district are one of the plaintiffs in the current lawsuit arguing the state of Kansas is not funding schools adequately or equitably.

A fourth of Kansas’ spending goes to Kindergarten through 12 education —  about 6 percent more  than the national average. It’s a lot of money. And how much education funding should be and how it should be  divided has long been tense in Kansas.

Alan Rupe is a lawyer representing the four school districts who have sued the state. In fact, he’s been involved in school funding lawsuits for almost three decades.

Rupe was born and raised in Kansas. He’s always described himself as a Republican, but in Kansas, he says, he’s now pegged as a liberal, because, according to Rupe, the state is tilting more and more to the right

RUPE

I am the same moderate Republican today I was then and in my hometown of Wichita, Kansas, I am known as a raving liberal. And my politics haven’t changed.

Back in 1999, at the request of several school districts, Rupe and his team sued the state in a case known commonly as Montoy, after one of the student-plaintiffs. Rupe argued that the state was not funding schools adequately. In 2005, the Kansas Supreme Court agreed and told the Legislature to increase funding. Rupe pulls out trial exhibit #237 and points to a line on a graph.

RUPE

And if you look you can see when Montoy decision occurred —

After Montoy, funding went up and up again the next school year too — and, Rupe says, as funding rose, so did test scores and the gulf between poor students and wealthy students started to narrow.

Superintendent Lane remembers this influx of funding. In Kansas City, class sizes went down. Lane hired more tutors, more counselors.

LANE

All of those kinds of things that children who particularly come from environments that are not wealthy need.

Then in 2008, the global recession hit Kansas, like everywhere else. And the Legislature started to cut. Initially, 511 million dollars disappeared from education.

Lane’s district lost 11 million.

LANE

So that meant 400 people lost their jobs, 130 of those were classroom teachers and the rest came from support divisions that supported student and family services.

So, services that help recently immigrated families — like Denis. Plus…

LANE

counseling, extra curricular, tutoring kinds of things, fewer bus drivers, custodians were cut. it was really devastating time to navigate through. And then since that time, cuts have continued to happen.

In  2010, Kansas City Kansas and three other districts asked Rupe to file a new lawsuit, called Ganon versus Kansas. They argued that the state still wasn’t funding public schools adequately — meaning not enough money in the overall budget. Or equitably — that schools with needier students, like ESL students or special needs students, weren’t getting their fair share of funding.

Then, in 2012, Kansas Governor Sam Brownback decided to try out a new economic approach. His idea was to jumpstart the state’s economy by attracting businesses through massive income tax cuts. Brownback called it the ‘march to zero’ — as in zero income taxes. Brownback’s economic advisor at the time called the plan “a revolution in a cornfield.”

But the problem is — it’s been three years. And the businesses and money still haven’t come.

RUPE

The fact is we’re in Kansas…. and there are places like Texas and other states that have considerable income from people coming into the state. Kansas ranks next to last and sometimes last in terms of income from tourism.

And so, with less tax money coming in, the Legislature cut the state budget and education funding — again.

RUPE

The shift has been  from a consideration from what does it costs to educate a kid who is at risk and has special needs — to what do I want to spend on kids that  are at risk and have special needs?

The emphasis on what the kid needs and what the educator needs to educate that kid — isn’t there in the legislature. When they make the decision that they are going to spend an amount that is independent of the needs of the kids, it’s the kids that lose.

I see it as a fight for education and a fight for Kansas’ future.

SCENE TWO

And in this fight, one of the main contenders is Dave Trabert.

TRABERT

None of it has to do with educating kids, it’s about political control of money.

Trabert is the president of the Kansas Policy Institute — often known in Kansas as KPI. KPI’s a libertarian think tank — they champion low taxes and small government.

And in this battle over public schools, Trabert’s constantly on the offensive. He writes a blog in a local newspaper, where he regularly gets in heated debates with dozens of commenters.

Trabert disagrees with almost everything  everyone in this story has said so far, and he says he has facts to prove it.

TRABERT

You have probably heard that school funding has been cut in Kansas. We have see a lot of national stories about that. It is flat not true.

In fact Trabert says that every year, funding to schools has gone up.

So, let’s take a moment to break down some numbers.

According to the Kansas Legislative Research Department, from 2011 to  2012 base aid fell about 150 bucks per student. This base aid number is the amount of money that goes just to instruction. It’s the number the Kansas had long used to calculate how much money should be spent on students.

But those aren’t the numbers Trabert uses. Instead, Trabert cites numbers from State Department of Education Between the same years, according to the State Department of Ed  — total spent per pupil — which includes federal aid and local money —  went up by about 370 dollars per student. These two numbers don’t match but  both are true. Trabert’s numbers include money for things like transportation, food, the teachers’ retirement fund, and building and technology upgrades. Trabert argues the schools have to manage the money they are given — and spend more on students.

TRABERT

What they talk, and you have to understand understand government speak. When government doesn’t get as much as it wants, that’s a cut.

AC: Well, it’s a school, so it’s not government.

DT: It’s government. It’s government, of course it is. Whether it’s a Department of Revenue or a Department of Education, these are government run schools. Ok? So let’s say when schools don’t get as much of an increase as they want, they call it a cut.

According to Trabert, superintendents, and Lane specifically, are mismanaging their money. They are not investing in students–and students are failing. Trabert says the achievement gap in Kansas is widening. And increasing money is not going to close it.

Many people in the Kansas Legislature seem to agree. Since 2009, the Legislature has done ‘efficiency’ audits on schools, to see where the can trim their budgets.

Superintendent Lane–whose district includes Mark Twain Elementary–actually volunteered to be audited.

LANE

I volunteered this school district, biggest school district, volunteered right out of the chute, because we want other people looking at what we are doing and giving us ideas of how to get better, while we are moving our kids forward.

Lane says some of what the committee suggested, she agreed with like increasing the district’s use of credit cards to make purchases — and get rebates…. But most of the things were cuts she refused to make…like cutting down on custodial staff and salaries and outsourcing transportation and food services to private companies. Lane says, she has seen no evidence that  the district  would save a lot of money through a private company. Plus she says she likes that the bus drivers are local, they know the streets and the kids better.

But Trabert says, in order to jumpstart Kansas’ public schools, the state needs to inject some competition from the private sector.

TRABERT

One of the things in Kansas is that we need some competition. Kansas also has one of the worst charter school laws in the country.  We have no competition. Where is the incentive? No one gets up in the morning and says, I mean school employees,  ‘We are going to do a bad job.’ No one does that. But the fact is, if you don’t have any competition, you don’t have any real incentive to get better.

But this whole fight about education funding. It’s not confined to the superintendents and policy wonks — in fact, the battle has moved into the Kansas government,pitting one branch against the other. How? We’ll explain right after this…

SCENE THREE

Judith Deedy and her husband moved to Kansas about ten years ago to be closer to  family.  At the time, their three kids were young, all under the age of three.

Deedy had always heard that Kansas had great public schools — especially in Johnson County, one of the wealthiest zip codes in America.

DEEDY

We live one block into Kansas. I like the Missouri, the homes one block that way, they’re lovely, but their public schools are really struggling and we wanted public schools to be a strong option, so we live one block into Kansas in the Shawnee Mission School District.

Deedy and her family moved into a two story yellow house  — with a swing in the front yard. Deedy has a law degree, but she’d decided to stay home and focus on being a mom for a while.

DEEDY

I didn’t follow local politics, I would look at yard signs of people I respected and figure, that’s who I should vote for. I looked at postcards to kind of make sure public education was on the list, which of course, it always is. LAUGHS So… guilty. That’s who I was. And what I thought qualified as being a responsible citizen.

When her eldest child, Kathleen, enrolled in school, Deedy joined the PTA. This was 2008 or 2009, during the recession, and Deedy learned the school district needed to cut about 10 million dollars. Deedy says the district asked parents to fill out a survey, it said…

DEEDY

We need to cut 10 million dollars, what would you cut? They had all these items and they had dollars numbers next to them. I went through, and I marked a few things, ok I could live without that, but then I was done and I think I was at 1 million.

The school district  made some big cuts 10 elementary teachers, 20 middle school teachers and 20 high school teachers, plus 16 social workers, several school police officers, and a bunch of other services, like intramural sports at all the elementary and middle schools and all special ed teaching assistants.

But, Deedy says, when she would read local news, the governor and legislators didn’t seem to mention how school budgets were suffering.

DEEDY

And that was the red flag to me. And that’s what some people who had been in it longer than me and more on the politics side of things said, do you see what they’re saying, do you think they are going to put this money back when the recession ends? We don’t think they are. And I thought, I don’t know. And now I know.

Deedy started watching state politics. In 2012, when Gov. Sam Brownback passed his sweeping tax cuts, she and other parents got nervous. She says the PTA became something closer to an activist group  They started calling themselves “Game On for Kansas Schools”, and they’ve become a loose coalition of parents and educators across the state.

Deedy says since 2011, her kids’ schools have seen cuts. They lost some math and reading tutors. Some classes have crowded to 25 kids. Deedy reminds me that  her district is wealthy, they have high property values–so they are not hit nearly as hard as a district like Kansas City.

Plus, she says,

DEEDY

Ok, so probably there was some inefficiency, some room for tightening belts.

For instance, the school got rid of the fourth grade program that taught kids how to play stringed instruments like the violin. No big deal, right? It’s not like you have to learn the violin to get a good education.

DEEDY

You could eliminate 4th grade strings and within a few years, nobody even remembers that you had fourth grade strings… But you start realizing when are we going to stop with this part of it. When do we get to rebuild?

Now, Deedy follows politics in Kansas doggedly. She testifies in front of the legislature. She’s staged three 60-mile marches from Kansas City to Topeka in support of public education. She monitors bills, she reads courts briefs. She is a woman determined to decipher this debate over public education.

She’s even made a list of catchphrases she’s heard Legislators use, and tells me what she thinks they actually mean–and what she thinks of them.

DEEDY

“We want more money into the classroom,” That means, “I already think our schools are overfunded and I will not vote for an additional dollar of school funding. I  just want you to reallocate the money you already have.”

“I support education.” That may not mean they support public education.

Right now, Deedy is looking to how the Supreme Court will decide the new school funding case. She says she feels the courts are the last barrier stopping the Legislature from slowly defunding public education.

DEEDY

It matters that you have a Supreme Court that will look at the constitution and say that public education is the one specific service they have is said, “You must make suitable provision for the finance of the education interests of the state.” So it’s really important to have a body that says, ‘No. You can make all kinds of decision, but this is something you have to do. Because that matters. Because we know how important it is to have educated citizens.’

In fact, Deedy believes that this fight over education funding has morphed into a battle for the court system.

And, Alan Rupe, the lawyer in the school funding case, agrees. Rupe says that the instead of figuring out how to better fund public education, the Legislature passes new laws concerning  the judicial branch to try to influence how the justices will rule on education cases.

RUPE

And instead of rolling up their sleeves and sitting down and figuring out what are the actual costs that we need to pay in order to provide kids an adequate education in Kansas,  they react in all kinds of other ways. And start figuring  how to keep the judges from being able to decide the case, they want to appoint the judges a different way.

In the past few years, there have been bills to lower the retirement age for justices on the Supreme Court or to change how the justices on the Supreme court are selected.

RUPE

They want to elect the judges. They will do anything they can, other than pay the actual costs of educating kids to an adequate level. I fully expect them sometime, to adopt a law that, if you’ve got a four letter name that starts with R you are not going to be able to be an attorney in a school finance case.

Rupe, of course, is spelled R-U-P-E. A little lawyer joke.

Senator Jeff King says says this is ludicrous. He agrees that the tension between the Legislative and Judicial branches is real, but not in any way related to the debate over school funding.

KING

Certain people that want to create a crisis where none exists saying every time you do anything to the Judicial branch, while there is any school finance case pending, that means you are trying to pay them back. We have interactions with the court system all the time, we should that’s how the Legislative and Judicial branch work, We are going to have give and take in that process. It’s not related to any school finance litigation.

In fact, King found himself in the heat of this debate when he passed a bill saying that the Supreme Court would no longer have the authority to select the chief judges in Kansas’ 31 judicial districts. Instead, local judges would pick.  But some of those local judges actually saw this as an unconstitutional encroachment on the power of the judiciary. So they hired a lawyer.

PEDRO LUIS

My name is Pedro Luis Irignonegaray and I happen to be in love with Kansas.

Irigonegaray filed a lawsuit on behalf of these local judges, saying that the bill that made them pick their own chief judges was a constitutional violation of the Supreme Court’s authority.

Then the Legislature tacked on another bill… It said that if new law about local judges was declared unconstitutional — then the entire budget of the judicial branch would be zeroed out and re-assessed by the Legislature.

IRIGONEGARAY

What the Supreme Court said, in essence states, even though this could potentially do away with our budget, the rule of law is clear and in order to maintain a republican style of government. we need three independent  branches and an intrusion of such substantive nature cannot will not be tolerated.

In short order, a court declared that the bill about local judges was indeed unconstitutional. And everyone freaked out. The courts, the attorney general, and Irigonegaray.

Irigonegaray also believes the root cause of all of this is education and which branch of government has the power to decide what level of school funding is adequate.

IRIGONEGARAY

The three branches of government always live with some degree of tension with one another. Which is what make our democracy work. It is when irresponsibility and a power grab occurs that we must be vigilant to protect those important separation of powers which is what occurred in Kansas.

Senator KIng says this is flat out wrong. In fact, King points out that the Legislature just passed a bill funding the courts at record levels.Yes, he says, there is tension between the Legislature and the Judiciary, but that’s how government works.

SCENE THREE

The Supreme Court has yet to decide whether  Kansas is adequately funding it’s public schools.. Right now, schools are frozen at last year’s  funding levels.  In fact, the Supreme Court recently declared that that was unconstitutional and that the Legislature has to fix it before the beginning of next school year.

While I was in Kansas, I visited four school districts. Two wealthy and suburban, and two poor and urban. And everyone said they were hurting. Many districts had been unable to fill teaching positions.

In fact, last year, a school district in Missouri rented two billboards along Kansas’ highways , promising great jobs and pay — in an attempt to lure teachers struggling in the face of budget cuts… to move across the state line.

And of course in the midst of all this, life in Kansas goes on.

AMBI

BASKETBALL GAME

At an 8th grade basketball game at Northwest Middle School in Kansas City, the bleachers are packed, the concession stand crowded, and cheerleaders do hopeful toe-touches. On the sidelines, I meet Marie Freeman cheering on her great grandson. She’s wearing a “You can’t hide that Tiger pride” T-shirt that she just bought to support the team.

After the game, Marie invited me over to her house for lunch.

AMBI

Now this is, this is me, I am the mother, this is my daughter, that’s my granddaughter, and that’s Rishad, the one that’s on the basketball team. So that’s a four generation picture.

Marie has two kids, five grandkids and two great grandkids. She was a foster mother and a substitute teacher. After basketball games, if she sees a hungry look on a kid’s face, she’ll buy him a snack or candy. Anything but soda. She buys backpacks and shoes and coats and drops them off at local schools. And she loves her grandson like mad.

FREEMAN

I am active in whatever school my great grandson’s in the 8th grade, he’s going into the 9th grade, which is high school. Oh, that high school is going to see me, they going to know me. long as the lord give me an able body to walk to talk to do what I need to do, each school will get a piece of me.

Freeman’s seen the cuts. The old uniforms. The firing of custodians, teaching aids and teachers. Freeman says she doesn’t follow politics that closely in general, but she’s frustrated about schools. She’s mad at the school boards, the superintendents, the legislature, and the governor.

She says you have to look at kids as whole human beings.

FREEMAN

You gotta look at the child, the inward child, not even the outward child, but what do they need inward? How can you help them while cutting funds? They are going to cut these kids, so they going to give them less education. But I think what the politicians don’t realize, these kids are going to be your next generation, they are going to be on you, you are going to get old, and what’s going to happen? What going to happen to you when you get old and have to be in a nursing home and you got these uneducated kids?

The students, to me, they look like a dollar sign these days. Cause you get a so much money per child. But you got to look at the kids beyond a dollar sign.

The Kansas Supreme Court will likely rule this year about whether or not the state’s education funding is adequate — a lot of money’s at stake — about 500 million dollars… Not to mention the future of about 486,000 kids.

For Life of the Law, I’m Ashley Cleek.

 

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