Between the Lines


By Jack Cashill


So Why All The Hysteria About Kansas Schools?

If you set aside the emotional issues that underpin the debate, the numbers and facts completely reframe the discussion.

OK, let’s start this essay with a quiz: Who makes more, the departing superintendent of the Olathe Public School District, Marlin Berry, or the governor of Kansas? Too easy? Let’s make it harder. 

Who makes more, an assistant principal in the Olathe district and its 65th-highest-paid employee, or Gov. Sam Brownback, who, by the way, makes $99,636 a year? Although you would 
never guess it reading the local newspaper—name escapes me—the answer is, the assistant principal. 

In his final year in Olathe, Berry made nearly three times what Brownback made. Sixty-five of his employees out-earned the governor. Some 233 Olathe employees make more than $90,000 a year in a city whose per-capita income is roughly $25,000 per year. 

That the state’s educational Mandarins, in Olathe and elsewhere, would be howling for more money might strike outsiders as a wee bit unseemly, but it does not seem to trouble their enablers. When State Rep. Scott Schwab sent the Olathe district’s employees an e-mail recently questioning why Berry had issued “dire” warnings about the district’s finances, the Olathe Board of Education moved to have Schwab arrested—literally. 

“We are instructing our attorney to investigate if any laws have been broken,” board President Rick Schier wrote to district educators, “and we are looking at measures to prevent similar intrusions on your valued time in the future.” 

Schwab dared to point out the obvious—namely that the block grant bill the state Legislature passed this year increased the school district’s funding by $450,000. He observed, too, that state aid to the district had increased 8.7 percent over the past three years. 

“It is important to note that [Schwab’s] email contained inaccurate information,” wrote Schier, neglecting to say just what those inaccuracies were. Nor did he specify which laws Schwab could possibly have broken in sending an informational e-mail to his own constituents.

If anyone was flirting with the outlaw life, it was Schier, who apparently corralled his fellow board members into approving his response. “They had a board action and there was no open meeting,” said Schwab. “They did it behind closed doors, which is a violation of the Kansas Open Meetings Act.” Schier is not worried. He knows that the state’s highly politicized courts are on his side, whatever that side might be.

House Speaker Ray Merrick recently observed that Republicans “argue with facts, data, charts, numbers.” As he sees it, the Mandarins and their media backers, knowing they cannot win on the facts, “have manufactured a very stubborn and inaccurate narrative that constantly spins up emotional vortexes of feelings.” Added Merrick, “Even though schools receive more money than ever, they can’t accept that as fact, because they feel differently.” 

To test Merrick’s thesis, I thought I would run some numbers. The great majority of these I pulled from the 2015 report of the National Educational Association. As a wholly owned subsidiary of the Democratic Party, the NEA treats Ray Merrick much the way cruel schoolboys treated Joseph Merrick, a.k.a. “the Elephant 
Man.” The numbers that follow are thus what lawyers might call “an admission against interest.”

Nothing the governor or the Kansas Legislature can do will satisfy a Supreme Court intent on raising taxes. From 2011-2014, the years during which Sam Brownback was ‘destroying’ the Kansas economy, median income in the state grew at twice the national average.

From 2011-2014, the years during which Sam Brownback was “destroying” the Kansas economy, median income in the state grew at twice the national average. 
The Kansas unemployment rate in May was 3.8 percent. Only 10 states had a lower rate.

The state’s median income, however, is still lower than it was in 2008. The Mandarins could care less. An economic downturn has never discouraged them from draining the lifeblood of their anemic fellow citizens—or at least trying to.

To be fair, Kansas teachers are not overpaid by national standards. In salary, they rank 37th among the 50 states. That said, their salaries go a good deal further than do the salaries of teachers in states like New York and California.

Kansas is the sixth-most affordable state in the nation. A home-buying family of median income can afford to choose from 83 percent of the homes in metro Wichita. A family of median income can select from 10 percent of the homes in metro San Francisco. Where would you rather teach?

The fact that Kansas leads the nation in the percentage of male schoolteachers—33 percent, nearly twice that of Virginia—suggests that teachers here can support themselves as well as teachers anywhere, maybe better. Most teachers, of course, supplement that income dur-ing their three months or so of summer vacation, a luxury beyond the imagination of the people who pay their salaries.

Again, given the media hysteria, it might surprise the reader to learn that Kansas teacher salaries are trending well. Those salaries increased 25 percent in the past decade, the 19th-highest increase among the 50 states. In the most recent recorded year, 2014, they increased 1.6 percent, the 18th-highest increase in the nation.

Curiously, the NEA report is mum on the salaries of the Mandarins. Despite the media’s newfound fetish for income equality, no one seems overly concerned that principals on average make more than twice as much as teachers or that the Olathe superintendent makes roughly six times as much as the average teacher.

Generous funding from the Legislature over the years has allowed Kansas to maintain an impressive student-teacher ratio. Last year, there were only 12.3 students 
in average daily attendance per teacher. Only nine states have lower ratios, and none by much. By contrast, Michigan and California teachers have nearly twice as many students in their charge.

None of this matters to the seven-member Kansas Supreme Court, five of whom were appointed during the Kathleen Sebelius era. Nothing the Legislature and the governor can do will satisfy this court because its goal is not to honor the constitution or even help school kids. Its goal is to raise taxes—and, oh yes, pull down the Republicans.

If need be, the judges are prepared to order public schools in the state closed at the end of this month, even if this means wrecking the state’s economy in the process. Stay tuned.   

About the author

Jack Cashill is Ingram's Senior Editor and has been affiliated with the magazine for more than 30 years. He can be reached at jackcashill@yahoo.com. The views expressed in this column are the writer's own and do not necessarily reflect those of Ingram's Magazine.