Wednesday, November 15, 2017

Brown v. Board: ‘A Time to Lose’

You may have heard we are celebrating our 100 years of service here at KASB. For a former history teacher, reviewing old programs and minutes is a fascinating exercise. History truly does repeat itself, over and over.

As we look back on the history of KASB in the context of the history of Kansas education, there is one glaring omission. On the issue Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, KASB seems to have remained silent. I wondered about this and did some research.

When one has a history question, walking to Mark Tallman’s office is a good first step. Mark recommended “A Time to Lose” written by the Kansas assistant attorney general who argued the state’s case unsuccessfully, Paul E. Wilson.

The author begins with an insightful history of race relations in Kansas, and I was struck by the paradoxes he exposed. Kansans take pride in being a “free state,” but Wilson reveals that the same “free state” Constitution denied African-Americans the right to vote. We regard ourselves as welcoming to Exodusters, the term used to describe African-Americans who came to Kansas after the Civil War, but Wilson provides examples of Green River Ordinances and Jim Crow Laws that were reactions to these former slaves moving to Kansas. Just like the rest of America, Kansas’ history of race relations is complicated and often embarrassing.

Fast forward to Kansas in the 1950’s. Several years ago when selling a house, I noticed the deed included a covenant that it was in an area that restricted sales to “whites only.” (For an examination of these practices, check out “The Color of Law,” by Richard Rothstein.) That covenant sums up Kansas race relations in the 1950’s – separate but equal was actively and passively the way things were.

Oliver Brown and other plaintiffs in Brown v. Board rejected this premise and practice in the now-famous lawsuit. Kansas’ case was significant because it was not about “separate but equal” school facilities. Brown v. Board was about the premise itself. In the words of Justice Thurgood Marshall, taken from his argument before the Supreme Court: “The only way that this court can decide this case in opposition to our position ... is to find that for some reason Negroes are inferior to all other human beings.”

Commentator Paul Harvey might say ‘and now, for the rest of the story.’ I had assumed KASB remained silent on the issue because of a responsibility to side with a member district. It turns out there is a little-known hero in this story – the duly elected board of education of Topeka Public Schools; the very same “Board” in Brown v. Board.

Yes, when the suit was filed in 1952, Topeka had a policy of separate but equal. White, Latino and Native Americans attended schools separate from African-Americans. However, shortly after the suit was filed, three new board members were elected. The superintendent resigned, and the new board and new superintendent decided not to offer a defense of their separate but equal policy to the Supreme Court. In fact, the board eventually changed the policy and passed a plan to fully desegregate the district before the Supreme Court directed the action.

For the lawyers on both sides, this caused great consternation. The action raised the potential of having the matter before the court being declared moot. Fortunately, those Supreme Court Justices heard the case and decided against separate but equal even though it had already been decided by the Topeka Board.

It was good to learn more about the case, and I recommend the book. It revealed courage on the part of the plaintiffs, the Topeka Board of Education and superintendent. That case was decided over 60 years ago, and race continues to be a sensitive issue.

This conclusion includes no answer to the question of “where was KASB in 1954?” The lack of an answer is a valuable lesson for an association reflecting on its history. The lesson is revealed in a statement made recently by Frank Henderson, Jr., a Kansas board member now serving on the NSBA Board. Reflecting on an NSBA conflict, he said “We were on the wrong side of the issue in 1954; we need to make sure that mistake is not repeated.”

Good advice, Frank.

Tuesday, October 24, 2017

Putting a round peg in a square hole

On Monday, October 2, the Kansas Supreme Court released its ruling on Gannon v State, finding the school funding law to be unconstitutional on adequacy and equity.
As with past rulings, we heard criticism about activist judges, inefficiency and lack of accountability. But let’s remember, the court studied stacks of exhibits, thousands of pages of documents, multiple precedents and hours of testimony to reach its conclusion. The trial record alone was 21,000 pages and since then more than 3,300 pages of briefs have been filed during the numerous appeals in the case.

The Kansas Supreme Court is the final arbiter of the Kansas Constitution and has consistently ruled that schools are not adequately funded. In its ruling, the court noted that Kansas schools have been funded appropriately for only three of the past 15 years.Now come the arguments that what we really need is more accountability for schools. Kansas schools are audited annually through an independent audit process, by the Kansas State Department of Education and by the federal government. They are subject to audits by Legislative Post Audit. All expenditures are approved monthly by locally elected boards of education. That is a lot of accountability.

But there is another kind of accountability. Some say what we need is better accountability for results. Put me down as an advocate for this idea. The devilish details are revealed in the question: “What results?” We spent 15 years focused on improving a reading and math score, measured by a standardized test. I fell victim to the cult of assessment. What we have learned is that score is not the result that matters. In fact, it isn’t a result at all, it is a small indicator in a greater result.

Six years ago, the Kansas Association of School Boards sponsored a series of listening tours in communities all over the state – our Kansas Conversations. Over 100 communities had discussions about their schools. The one issue that rose to the top? We spend too much time on standardized tests.

A few years later, the Kansas State Board of Education went on a listening tour of the state and asked a different question: “What do we want for our children?” Kansans answered loudly: “We want them to be successful adults.” So now we have an outcome, a result, that is meaningful. And the State Board said, “We are going to hold schools accountable for student success.” Now we have an accountability measure on which we can all agree.

Meanwhile, back in Topeka, our Kansas Legislature struggled to develop a school finance formula that would pass constitutional muster. Kansas Education Commissioner Randy Watson likes to use a space exploration metaphor, so I will use one here.

Recall the scene from Apollo 13: a room full of engineers are assembled and boxes of materials and equipment are dumped on the table with the directive to figure how to ‘put a round peg into a square hole.’ For our legislators, the square peg was a budget depleted by a failed tax plan and a gubernatorial veto, and the round hole was adequately and equitably funded schools. They did the best they could with what they had. But the court has said the solution didn’t save the ‘astronauts.’ Clearly, more resources were needed.

The challenge is still there. The fix wasn’t good enough. I feel bad for the engineers of this solution. They worked hard. They are already being targeted in their re-election campaigns. They put heart and soul into crafting a workable solution. Now they must go back to work. Our job as school leaders is to provide them with support. We must help in every way we can to bring a workable solution to bear by April 30, 2018 – the Court’s deadline.

We have an accountability measure just like the Apollo engineers did. They needed to bring the astronauts home. We need to set our children forth on a path to success. We have a goal. We have a task. We have a deadline. Let’s get to work.

Tuesday, September 19, 2017

Max & Dale: Decades of positive impact

One hundred years ago, the first recorded meeting of the The Council of Administration of the Kansas Teacher’s Association held its first meeting. The group that would eventually become the Kansas Association of School Boards’ earliest recorded program is from 1923, and among the topics on the agenda were: 
  • “Necessary Requirements for and a Definite Program for Physical Education” by Dr. Light, President of the Chanute Board of Education
  • “The Duties and Restrictions of the School Superintendent From the Point of View of the Board of Education” by Dr. Brewer of the Beloit Board of Education 
  • “The Progress of Vocational and Industrial Education in Kansas” by CM Miller of the State Department of Education 
The program itself was printed by the Pittsburg High School Printing Department. It could be a program from 2017.

If we fast forward to 1934, a gentleman from Frederick, Kansas, Frank Murphy, was in his eighth year as President of the Association. That is the same year that Max Heim was born in Hays, Kansas. So that old fellow has been around for 80 percent of KASB’s 100 years. Max had a long and storied career in Kansas education, and his picture is on the wall of the Kansas Teacher’s Hall of Fame.

When I was in third or fourth grade, we lived in Manhattan, Kansas, where Max was an assistant superintendent. I have a vague memory of him returning from a meeting and retelling a joke he had heard from someone named Dale Dennis. The reason I remember this joke is because it was just off-color enough for my mom to have said “Max” which was a common admonishment. Remember, this was the late 60s, so it was tame by today’s standards. I can still remember the punch-line. Message me for it!

Why would I remember this?  Maybe it is an interesting name for an interesting man. Born three years later than Max, in 1937, Dale, too, has been around for 80 percent of KASB’s history. Both men have had a considerable effect on the lives of thousands of Kansas children, including me. Naturally, I know more about Max than Dale. Max started his career in Gorham, Kansas as a teacher and coach. He moved through many positions and finished his career working at KASB until another Heim arrived at 1420 Arrowhead in 2010. (Family rumors circulate about a wrongful termination suit, but it is probably just talk instigated by my brother).

But enough about them, back to me. Recently, my mom has been working on organizing papers and mementos from our childhoods. For example, I recently discovered that I was an Honorable Mention State Award Winner in Social Studies while at Santa Fe Trail Junior High school, and was given the name “Mad Dog” by some smart aleck coach who wrote it on my eighth grade football letter at Independence Junior High. (The coach actually called me Baby Robin. Again, message me). Another classic find was from 1973 or `74, a picture of me and my trombone marching with the IHS band for the Neewollah Parade. On the back of the picture from the Independence Daily Reporter is an article about a man named, yep, Dale Dennis. Dennis was quoted in the story about a lawsuit filed by a local district against the state. No need to message me for the content of the suit -- underfunding of education.

If it seems like these guys have been around forever, it is because in terms of the history of Kansas Education, they have. Both men have careers that started in the late 50s and have been having a positive impact on Kansas kids ever since. Max retired seven years ago for the last time, but is still a source of advice and inspiration for me, and many others who know him. Dale recently celebrated his 80th birthday and still puts in the hours of a man half his age. How many superintendents, board members, and legislators have relied on his advice over his career?

And KASB, we are still here too, and will be celebrating 100 years of service. I would say we have been in good company for 80 percent of those years.