Anti-education ‘zombie’ bills shamble forward, but Kansas advocates have beheaded them before

February 16, 2022 1:30 pm

About 50 people gathered to oppose legislation that opponents say will undermine the authority of teachers and school boards to properly educate Kansas students. (Noah Taborda/Kansas Reflector)

Leave it to Tom Witt, executive director of Equality Kansas and dean of progressive lobbyists at the Kansas Statehouse, to sum up the challenge facing education advocates.

“In this building, nothing stays dead,” he said Tuesday at a rally on the first floor of the Capitol. “You see zombie movies? This is it right here.”

In short, the “Parents’ Bill of Rights” that will be debated Wednesday in the House K-12 Education Budget Committee is nothing but a shambling corpse, pieced together from bills defeated in past years. The reanimating force is the siren’s call of critical race theory. Another version will be heard in the Senate Education Committee. Archconservatives have rushed to raise a zombie army, its ranks full of discredited ideas including private school vouchers, discriminating against LGBT youths and “accountability” measures. Kansans have battled these marauding hordes before. Somehow they keep coming back.

Tom Witt, executive director of Equality Kansas, spoke at the Monday rally at the Statehouse. (Sherman Smith/Kansas Reflector)

“This conversation about race or critical theory, whatever the right is calling it, is being used as an excuse to undermine support for public schools,” said Rabbi Moti Rieber, executive director of Kansas Interfaith Action, according to reporting from Kansas Reflector’s Noah Taborda.

Time and again we’ve seen the zombies rise.

Time and again we’ve seen it backfire spectacularly.

When budgets were cut and teachers fled the state during former Gov. Sam Brownback’s catastrophic tax cutting “experiment,” Kansas voters noticed. They got angry, then they got even by punishing conservative lawmakers in the 2016 elections. A new crop of pro-education legislators were sworn in and swiftly reversed the Brownback program in summer 2017.

Two years after that election, Democrat Laura Kelly was elected governor on a pledge to fully fund the state’s schools. Sure, she was running against human Dumpster fire Kris Kobach, but her stances and her rhetoric mattered.

You see, Kansans don’t just like their public schools. They’re proud of them. They believe in them. They trust in teachers and administrators – and coaches and custodians and counselors and cafeteria workers. They want to see schools fully funded, students learning and educators doing their jobs. They know that schools did their jobs before the critical race theory panic, and they know that schools will be doing their jobs after the furor is nothing but a distant memory. They’ve seen reactionary bills spread from one state to another, but Kansans know what works here.

Here’s the positive side of Witt’s analogy. Zombies seldom meet a pleasant end in horror movies.

Sure, they look fearsome and chomp on a few brains. But once our heroes learn to work together, the monstrosities can be dispatched by swift decapitation. Let’s hope pro-education advocates in Kansas have prepared for the fracas ahead.

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Clay Wirestone
Clay Wirestone

Clay Wirestone serves as Kansas Reflector's opinion editor. His columns have been published in the Kansas City Star and Wichita Eagle, along with newspapers and websites across the state and nation. He has written and edited for newsrooms in Kansas, New Hampshire, Florida and Pennsylvania. He has also fact checked politicians, researched for Larry the Cable Guy, and appeared in PolitiFact, Mental Floss, and cnn.com. Before joining the Reflector in summer 2021, Clay spent four years at the nonprofit Kansas Action for Children as communications director. Beyond the written word, he has drawn cartoons, hosted podcasts, designed graphics and moderated debates. Clay graduated from the University of Kansas and lives in Lawrence with his husband and son.