Posted Date: 12/03/2021
I have heard that phrase many times throughout my life and had never really given it much thought. Anyone that knows me knows that I am not necessarily a history buff. I was a science teacher way back in the day. The phrase All Politics is Local is commonly attributed to former Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives Tip O’Neill, although a quick search explains he is not the originator of the quote. Still, as we are on the cusp of another legislative session in Kansas, I thought it was fitting to unpack this statement a bit from my perspective as a former science teacher that supports local boards of education. The longer I have been at KASB, the more I see how state and federal politics is often far removed from most of our local school boards. The following are topics that gain a lot of emotion and headlines that will likely be discussed in the upcoming legislative session.
There is no shortage of things to read about in the headlines about the “state” of public education. Bring some of these headlines to the context of what is happening locally for you. You will likely hear proclamations being made about the failures of public education in Kansas. However, I recently had the opportunity to listen to our Commissioner Dr. Randy Watson share that our overall graduation rates statewide and our graduations rates of students in historically underperforming groups are the highest they have ever been! Coming at this from a science perspective, you can only raise the overall performance by improving the parts that contribute to the overall performance. This means that your local school districts, the parts, are graduating students at the highest rates ever. Locally speaking we are doing great work, with plenty of room to continue to improve.
Another strategy that gets pushed at the state and federal level for improving our “failing” public schools is school choice. The claim is that students in the lowest-performing schools need to have the choice to attend a better school. Let’s put some local context around this: in Kansas, a student can choose to go to any public school if they are in good standing from the school they are departing and there is room in the district they desire to attend. Most of the time the accepting district will take the student. One logistical complication to attending a different school district is the family, or friends having to drive the student to their new school because transportation is not provided. The accepting public school cannot discriminate based on the student’s income level, learning levels, or athletic ability, and must provide by law special education services if the child qualifies. Those factors come into play with the school choice options that are being pushed as the private schools can pick and choose which students they accept and are not required to provide the additional learning supports that a student may need to be successful.
Another area that has gained some state and national attention in the political arenas include questions surrounding what we are teaching in schools and the impact it is having on the social-emotional state of students. There have been recent special hearings related to the social-emotional well-being of students and the topic of Critical Race Theory. Critical Race Theory is widely regarded as a graduate-level concept introduced to students in their later years of law school. However, it is being substituted at the state and federal level for teaching our students about their own social-emotional development, and the understanding of differences that exists among their classmates. Long before the claims CRT is being taught in our K-12 public schools, our youth’s mental health was suffering. There has been an alarming rise in teen suicides across the state and country for the last few years. Keeping with the politics is a local and science theme, just because CRT is being discussed by different entities does not mean it is causing a decline in our youth’s mental health. There is a whole blog that could be written on causation and correlation, but I will leave that to Ted Carter, our Chief Data Officer. There is a multitude of other factors that need to be considered locally as we look to support or students’ mental health needs. In Kansas, we have traditionally held the belief that the decisions are best made at the local level, closest to the student and their needs.
The state-level politics around school funding always generates quite a buzz. The political arguments fall into two categories, 1) we are paying too much with underwhelming results, and 2) additional resources are necessary to support the increasing needs and costs associated with supporting student success. It is no secret which camp KASB falls into, however, I would like you to reflect on this topic locally. Take a minute to look around your communities. What services or supports have gotten cheaper, but of higher quality? What needs have diminished without some sort of investment to address them? I connect with rural Kansas because that is where my roots are, and I am fortunate to travel around this state and experience all types of communities., Some communities are thriving while others are struggling, but there is a common theme that I have noticed in these travels. Where there is local leadership that invests in their community there is a much high likelihood of that community thriving. I think of the communities that have locally decided to invest in their healthcare infrastructure, yes it costs more but the service and support have improved. Some communities have aggressively invested in housing programs to improve the quality of housing to attract and retain young professionals. The communities that invested in the collaborative relationship between local mental health, early childhood providers, and public schools, and the amazing results they are getting. None of these great things happen without local leadership and investments by the leaders within these communities.
The Kansas economy has been able to slowly recover from the COVID-19 pandemic. Increased inflation, pent-up demand for purchases, low unemployment, and strong agriculture prices are all boosting tax revenue to the state. This has resulted in considerably higher revenue estimates. The politics at the state level will be that it is time to cut taxes. Bring those politics to the local level; cutting taxes at the state level likely reduces your ability to sustain efforts to improve graduation rates locally, provide for student mental health supports, and fund those programs that communities rely on to invest in their futures.
These topics will likely be bantered about during this upcoming session. As you reach out to visit with your local elected officials, share your local story. These state and federal-level politics can stir up a lot of emotions. You all are looked to as leaders within your communities when these emotions rise to a fever pitch. Characteristics of great leaders include being able to control those emotions and reframe arguments to make them relevant to the current situation. When talking about state and federal politics our board of education members and superintendents need to be ready to reframe the politics to ensure that what is happening locally gets communicated accurately.