Gov. Sam Brownback’s proposals to radically change longstanding policies regarding income taxes and public education funding are facing increasing scrutiny and criticism.
The most recent challenge comes from the Traditional Republicans for Common Sense, a group of former legislators and party leaders. They are calling for restoring the funding cuts to public education and maintaining the state income tax. The governor responded in April 27 Mercury by asserting that his policies will result in more liberty, opportunity and prosperity.
Gov. Brownback makes his case by invoking two images featured in John Steuart Curry murals on the Kansas State-house walls; the famous depiction of John Brown and the highly romanticized portrait of 19th century Kansas homesteaders. The governor says these symbols represent the best of Kansas’ past as well as his philosophical roadmap for the state’s future.
Invoking John Brown is an interesting choice. Thousands of settlers came to Kansas to establish a bastion of freedom for all by opposing slavery and promoting education. Why would the governor choose a murderous zealot such as Brown as an appropriate historical symbol when so many abolitionists who settled here, while willing to fight, chose a more peaceful, deliberate and moderate course of action? Perhaps it was Brown’s “no compromise” ap-proach and “take no prisoners” tactics that appeal to Gov. Brownback and his followers.
I believe a more fitting example of what was good and right about the abolitionist settlers of Kansas was Isaac Goodnow. While deeply invested in ending slavery, Goodnow and many other like-minded settlers looked forward — beyond the end of that battle to a future in which opportunity, liberty and prosperity sprang forth from a number of important values, including a commitment to educating future generations.
The governor’s choice of Curry’s homesteading family as a symbol of self-reliance, opportunity and liberty is powerful and appropriate in many ways. Except Kansas today has be-come urbanized in a way those homesteaders could never have envisioned. This urbanization requires restrictions on some of our liberties, i.e. city dwellers cannot burn their trash. At the same time, urbanization creates expanded opportunities, i.e. the need for refuse control creates business opportunities. While we can celebrate the values represented by those homesteading families, it must be done within the context of today’s economic and demographic realities.
Some equally powerful symbols from 19th century rural Kansas the governor did not mention are the hundreds of one-room schoolhouses that dotted the plains. More than mere paintings, these were real structures built by real settlers serving a very real purpose. Which brings me to the core of my critique of the governor’s vision for Kansas; he failed to mention education — at all.
On a philosophical level, how can one talk about opportunity, liberty and prosperity without considering our commitment to education? And on a practical level, when three-fourths of the budget for the State of Kansas goes to education, one cannot talk about cutting that budget without discussing how that will impact our schools. It is both symbolic and disturbing that Gov. Brownback touts that he reduced the Kansas budget and is now running a surplus — but fails to mention that this was achieved in no small part by cutting funding to our public schools.
Kansas homesteaders knew full well that unless they primed the pump, they were not going to get any water out of their well. It is our responsibility to prime the opportunity pump for our children by giving them the best possible education. They must be able to compete in the global marketplace. Yes, we want there to be good economic opportunities in Kansas so that our children will choose to stay home. However, we do not want them staying home because they cannot compete elsewhere.
I urge Gov. Brownback to listen to the rising chorus calling for him to abandon his most radical policy proposals. I believe we must chart a course based upon common sense that pays tribute to our noble past. That course should build upon the generations of prudent, conservative fiscal policies that included a strong commitment to public education. Going forward, that course should deliver the excellence in education that every child in Kansas deserves.
Dave Colburn is a local businessman and a member of the USD 383 Board of Education, though he is not speaking for the board.