Rep. Kristey Williams listens to debate during a Feb. 8, 2023, meeting of the K-12 Education Budget Committee, where lawmakers passed her proposed school voucher program. (Sherman Smith/Kansas Reflector)
You might not imagine Rep. Kristey Williams, R-Augusta, as a punk rocker with a safety pin through her nose screaming: “No future!”
But that’s the ultimate effect of her proposals to radically reshape Kansas public education, directing state dollars to unregulated and unaccredited private schools. At a hearing Monday, the education budget committee chairwoman showed that Johnny Rotten has nothing on her for joyous expressions of nihilism. She and fellow Republican committee members appear committed to undermining the public education system that serves a half-million children — and razing the future of our state along the way.
I don’t know if Williams has ever windmilled a guitar or yowled into a microphone. She did, however, give proponents of the bill a full minute more to testify than opponents and angrily shut down colleagues who grappled with the enormity of her proposals.
“We’re not going to do these holy-moly-like statements,” Williams said, according to Kansas Reflector reporter Rachel Mipro. “This is not a time to grandstand.”
Indeed it wasn’t. If only someone had reminded the chairwoman.
Former Republican lawmaker Jim Karleskint, now with the Unified School Administrators of Kansas, outlined what was at stake.
“In this bill, there’s little to no oversight on expenditures, little to no oversight for student achievement,” he said. “The bill can lead to unregulated schools, would allow (education savings accounts) to remain active for four years after graduation and would allow parents to double dip and, as we heard earlier, possibly triple. Other states that have adopted this type of legislation have numerous examples of fraud and misuse.”
Undeterred and unashamed, Williams pushed the bill through committee on Wednesday. The sounds pretty punk to me.
Against the grain
Williams and her backers in the conservative nonprofit sphere — don’t worry, Dave Trabert, I haven’t forgotten you — have chosen a course of action that runs counter to every modern trend. Far from encouraging growth or innovation, their plans will turn Kansas education into a giant vampire squid, sucking money out of taxpayers to fatten the wallets of religious extremists.
Anyone with a passing interest in modern life can see the problems.
Good-paying jobs increasingly require technical and specialized training. Workers of the future will need to be thoroughly educated.
A handful of the unregulated, unaccredited institutions of the kind praised at Monday’s hearing may indeed offer that kind of training. Many will not. Without minimum and enforced standards, parents and children won’t be able to tell the difference. Their futures will suffer because legislators didn’t dedicate time and attention to the best system we have for achieving such aims: public schools.
We also live in an ever-more-secular world. Fewer people than ever before attend church or follow organized religion. According to research from Pew, nearly a third of Americans are religiously unaffiliated. Christians will account for less than half of the U.S. population within a few decades.
Yet private school advocates argue for public funding of religious institutions. They’ve found a receptive audience at the U.S. Supreme Court. Such schooling will do little to prepare children for the future, instead inculcating them with increasingly irrelevant dogma.
That secular world I just mentioned? It will be — indeed, it already is — defined by diversity.
That means folks of different genders, races, sexual orientation and beliefs. The latest U.S. Census data bears it out. Today’s students won’t enter workplaces full of people who look and think the way they do. They will have to adapt and empathize. They will have to understand other perspectives. Public schools, more than other other modern institution, prepare young people for that reality.
Finally, families make decisions about where to live based on the quality of public services. Families move to communities in Johnson County and the northeast part of the state for a reason. Many of these towns have high property values and have spent the money needed to create great schools. Sending families $5,000 for unaccredited education won’t buy them much schooling, but it will drain resources from successful and struggling districts alike.
Parents will notice. If they’re able they will move to another state.
Scorched earth outcomes
The proposals Williams and her education committee talked about Monday would leave Kansas students worse off than they are today and less prepared for the future.
That agenda might include a silver lining, though. Wichita Eagle opinion editor Dion Lefler made a compelling case last month in a column titled “MAGA parents demand school choice and I can’t wait to say goodbye.”
“As far as I’m concerned, the parents and politicians pushing their culture war agendas are better off gone from public schools, and good riddance,” Lefler wrote. “With school choice, they can go sequester their kids in private segregated academies where no one will ever question their prejudices and their beliefs will always be upheld.”
He’s not wrong.
But I worry. Kansas has traditionally been known for quality public education, and if we lose that reputation, it could be catastrophic for the next generation. Families and teachers will find schools elsewhere. Top students will leave to seek college and job opportunities in other states. Students forced by their families into unregulated schools will face dismal college and employment prospects. They will abandon Kansas too, if they can manage it.
Public schools — and those of us who support them — might be glad to see agitators go. The mechanism employed to excise them, however, could ruin our shared society.
Punks or not, we would all be left without a future.
Clay Wirestone is Kansas Reflector opinion editor. Through its opinion section, the Reflector works to amplify the voices of people who are affected by public policies or excluded from public debate. Find information, including how to submit your own commentary, here.
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