Public education has a long tradition in the U.S., having first germinated in Thomas Jefferson’s early advocacy. In 1837 the concept was put into practice by Horace Mann of Massachusetts, when he established a statewide system of professional teachers and common schools. Mann’s system soon spread to other states as many began to subscribe to the idea that the common school could be the “great equalizer” in American society. The schools were termed “common” because they were viewed as a civic asset held in common by all and available to all.
From its very beginnings the objective of free and universal public education went beyond mere learning to include social efficiency, civic virtue, and development of character. And in the formative days of Kansas “The Territorial Legislature believed education was key to the state’s growth and development, since a literate and skilled citizenry could help build business and industry.”
Support for public education remains strong today, as stated by Tom Brokaw: “There is a place in America to take a stand: it is public education. It is the underpinning of our cultural and political system. It is the great common ground. Public education after all is the engine that moves us as a society toward a common destiny… It is in public education that the American dream begins to take shape.”
In short, the purpose of public education was, and still remains, the creation and advancement of a well-educated citizenry.
Like any well-conceived governmental program, public education exists for the benefit of all, whether that benefit is direct or indirect. It was never intended as a government subsidy for the parents of school-age children, for if it were then logic implies that childless couples would be entitled to a refund of that portion of their taxes which went for the support of public education. They are not, of course, just as an individual without a car isn’t entitled to a refund of taxes which are devoted to creation and maintenance of public roadways.
Recent attempts have been made to divert Kansas state government funds to private education and to chip away at the concept of public education as a bedrock principle of society. It began during the 2014 legislative session, when a provision was inserted into a school finance bill to provide tax credits for corporate scholarships to private schools. That marks the first time in state history that state tax dollars have been diverted from public education to private schools.
Now a much greater threat to public education has been proposed as part of HB 2741, which would provide for a payment to the parents of home-schooled students, or those enrolled in private school, equal to 70% of per pupil state aid. Estimates put the cost of that program at $130 million to $300 million per year. Those are dollars which would be unavailable for public education, at a time when financing public education is the subject of an ongoing court dispute over adequacy of funding.
If this proposal were to become law it would cause a shrinking of the public education system as funding dwindles, leading the brightest and most capable students to increasingly choose private education instead. Public schools would be left as residual institutions for the education of the most impoverished students as well as those most difficult to educate (and therefore not accepted into private schools). The result would be vast disparities of educational opportunity for Kansas school children, and an end of the long-held concept of public education as a foundational building block of our society.
Are Kansans ready to take this step? Are we collectively willing to endorse the downsizing and impoverishment of public education? Are we willing to support the transfer of hundreds of millions of state dollars to private and home-school institutions with little of the oversight or control under which public schools must operate? This proposal is a revolutionary approach to the way Kansas supports education. It is imperative that all Kansans join in the discussion and let their opinions be known. As for me, I remain committed to the principle that public dollars are intended for and must be devoted exclusively to public education.