Joco Opinion

July 1, 2014

Commission on K-12 schools looks doomed from the start

The four members picked so far see education through different eyes, making compromise unlikely if not impossible.

The Kansas “Tower of Babel Committee” — otherwise known as the K-12 Student Performance and Efficiencies Commission — will be really, really lucky if its members can reach consensus on anything.

The nine-member commission, established as part of this year’s school finance bill, is supposed to come up with two things by this January:

One, study various measures of student performance;

Two, make recommendations to the Legislature about the efficient use of tax dollars.

I call it the “Tower of Babel,” because several of the members appointed so far speak entirely different languages when it comes to public education.

And the one thing they could possibly all agree upon — which is politically off-limits — is the need to close and consolidate schools all over the state, where classrooms are mostly empty, and therefore per capita administrative costs are eating Kansas alive. Now, that would be true efficiency.

And as for student performance, the “Common Core Curriculum” is already there and waiting. But politics will probably kill that, too.

With all of that off the table, it is difficult to comprehend how the commission members will come up with meaningful results.

Not everyone has been appointed yet, but from the commission’s makeup so far, you can only imagine the friction that is bound to occur. Just take four members out of those appointed.

There is former State Sen. John Vratil, a moderate Republican from Johnson County, picked by Democrat legislator Paul Davis, who is running for governor. Vratil is probably the top expert in Kansas on school finance, and he comes to the commission with a strong notion that schools are underfunded and exist with a bad formula for distributing money to districts. Vratil is not likely to bend on his passion that the Legislature is shorting Kansas schools.

Johnson County has another member of the commission. Shawnee Mission Superintendent Jim Hinson was appointed by none other than Gov. Sam Brownback himself. Hinson comes to the table with an equally strong opinion that schools are underfunded and that the formula punishes districts like Shawnee Mission. In fact, Shawnee Mission, with all of its cutbacks, is the poster child for what’s wrong with the state’s funding shortfalls.

And in the other corner you have two commission members who come with equally strong opinions that schools are overfunded and need to be cut through efficiencies.

Kansas Policy Institute’s president Dave Trabert was one of two members selected by House Speaker Ray Merrick, a Republican from Stilwell. KPI is an ultra-conservative Wichita think tank that consistently has called for the overhaul of schools. It is thought to be funded, in large part, by the right-wing Koch brothers of Wichita. Where others see a funding crisis, Trabert thinks he sees waste.

Merrick’s other appointment is another naysayer when it comes to increased funding for schools. Kansas Chamber of Commerce president and CEO Mike O’Neal, former House Speaker, is one of the state’s most vocal critics of Kansas schools. The chamber is known to be funded to a great extent and influenced by the Koch brothers.

So, what we have on the commission are these arch enemies who see the K-12 schools entirely through different eyes.

It is unfathomable that these individuals would compromise on anything substantive.

It is difficult to imagine that the commission is not doomed before it starts.

|Special to The Star

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