Speechless in Topeka

Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback greets supporters as he leaves the house chambers after his Inaugural Ceremony, Monday, Jan. 12, 20
Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback greets supporters as he leaves the house chambers after his Inaugural Ceremony, Monday, Jan. 12, 2015, at the Kansas Statehouse in Topeka, Kan. (AP Photo/Charlie Riedel)

The normally talkative woman was speechless after the last Kansas legislative session. The typically productive writer, deflated by the antics that occurred in her hometown of Topeka, was stuck about how to characterize the dismal politics of her adopted state.

Early on in the legislative session, she told many people her angle would be life in the State of Stupid. She felt sheepish about this, since she had taught her children not to call names, and she had railed against the politics of polarization. But there was really no better adjective to describe the counterproductive, wrong-headed policies of the present administration.

But just as she prepared to begin her piece in late spring, she read an article in the Kansas City Star about a group in Wichita trying to register as a PAC under the name It's Time to Fix Stupid. The article said the group intended to use its website to conduct a "Stupid Tuesday" primary in August to highlight the lowest members of the legislature.

The chairman of the group said: "Kansas has the third-least-educated legislature in the country. We want to target some of these people who have basically embarrassed the state with their stupidity."

It is true that according to a 2011 report by The Chronicle of Higher Education, Kansas ranked behind only Arkansas and Montana in terms of least number of elected legislators who possess four-year college degrees.

Of course, one doesn't need a college degree to succeed in any number of fields -- Information Technology (IT) being the most obvious -- but if you are making policy decisions regarding higher education, possessing a college degree might make you more knowledgeable and sympathetic.

But the woman was even more disturbed by the legislature's antipathy toward its own public schools. In his State of the State address this year, Governor Sam Brownback stunned the public with his announcement that he was promoting a different formula to replace the existing public school formula developed to balance funding inequities. When the legislature did his bidding and passed the school block-grant funding system, districts all over the state announced dramatic cost-cutting in response -- from truncating the academic year, to cutting summer school and summer meal programs for indigent students, to pink-slipping valuable staff. This formula is now being challenged in the court system, bleeding the state's coffers to defend a regressive and unfair policy measure. And the state is bleeding teachers, too.

The woman wanted to write about the broken ladder of educational advancement in the state. She wanted to write about how each generation has historically climbed the rungs of the economy through education. In her own family of origin, her maternal grandfather dropped out of school in the fourth grade and her grandmother in the eighth, both needed at home. Her mother attended junior college for two years, paying her own way working for the telephone company. Her father was the only one of his six siblings to get a college degree. Then he earned two bachelor's degrees: one in English, the second in geology. The woman stayed in that pattern, getting a degree in journalism, then in English Education.

But just as she sat down to write about the schools, an intrepid waitress trumped her, translating what the education cuts mean in human terms. The story broke in early May. This college student working at a Topeka barbecue joint saw that our governor was at one of her tables. When she left the bill, she put an "X" in the spot reserved for the tip and wrote "Tip the Schools." In the Topeka Capital-Journal the waitress said her sister is a special education student and "has lost so many dedicated educators who've been cut due to budget cuts. I think it should matter to everyone."

Then at the end of the historically longest, 114-day, legislative session -- each day past 90 costing the equivalent of the annual salary for a Kansas public school teacher -- the woman sat down and wrote a piece titled "The Blind Leading the Blinder." In it she quoted the adage about none being so blind as an ideologue, applying the label to Brownback. She made apologies to the physically blind, who frequently develop extraordinary powers of perception.

She went on to write that if Brownback is blind, the Kansas legislature -- with some notable exceptions -- was blinder. Time and again, pragmatic solutions were ditched in favor of bend-over-backward dogmatic fixes, the biggest one being a regressive sales tax Band-Aid over a gaping wound caused by Brownback's income tax exemptions for businesses.

But just as she prepared to submit her piece, Tom Witt, executive director of Equality Kansas, weighed in on Brownback's concern for protecting religious liberties in the state following the Supreme Court's legalization of same-sex marriage. Witt said in an AP article that Brownback is "blinded by his ideology."

So, the woman (me, of course) recognized that she was but one of many voices in the state, all saying the same things about the same issues, all taking the administration and legislature to task, and noting that present ideological policies are impractical, and harmful. This time, however, the woman decided not to shelve her piece. Kansas needs every voice of reason and protest it can muster.