One of the most well known uses of allegory is by the Greek philosopher Plato, who meant it to illustrate the limited understanding we have of life’s events given our narrow perspective. He gave the example of people chained to the walls of a cave their entire lives. Since there is a fire at the entrance of the cave, it blocks their view to the outside. All they can see are the shadows cast on the back wall of their cave by objects passing in front of the fire. They don’t see the reality, but only the shadows.
When it comes to understanding state and local politics, most people here in Kansas City are like those prisoners in a cave. They have a wide range of sources of information and commentary on national and international events and issues. On television, you can watch CNN, MSNBC, or Fox or any of the Big Four broadcast networks. In print media, you have a variety of magazines and newspapers, with ones to meet every point of view. Now, of course, you also have the Internet; with an almost infinite choice of websites, blogs, or online columns. Finally, there is Amazon and Barnes & Noble, as well as independent bookstores like Fairway’s Rainy Day Books or Kansas City’s Prospero’s, which offer an endless bounty of new books on economics, politics, history, and sociology.
However, when it comes to state and local matters, most of the time you’re pretty much stuck with the Kansas City Star as your only source of information and opinion. (The former Sun newspapers were simply an echo of the Establishment platitudes of the Grand Avenue Oligarchy, otherwise known as the KC Star. This is confirmed by the ease with which former Sun publisher, Steve Rose, slid over into writing a column for the Star after the Sun ceased publication. Citizen Rose, of course, was crying all the way to the bank, having sold the money-losing Sun papers to the unsuspecting new owners for a king’s ransom, based on the alluring demographics of JoCo, despite precious few actual paying subscribers.)
Of all the shadowy illusions peddled by the Star, the biggest —and the one most Johnson County residents swallow without hesitation—is that the local schools in Kansas have long been starved of money.
Anyone who has lived in Kansas for any length of time has been confronted with a nightmare scenario, which has become hauntingly familiar through sheer repetition. Yet every year between 1990 and 2010 tax revenues and education spending went up. All this time the state’s governors were all moderate Republicans (Hayden, Graves) or liberal Democrats (Finney, Sebelius). One governor was a political hermaphrodite, having switched parties from Republican to Democrat. (The “trannie” was Lt. Governor Mark Parkinson, who succeeded Kathleen Sebelius when she left to join President Obama’s cabinet.)
The legislature was also controlled by a coalition of moderate Republicans and liberal Democrats, who cooperated in most respects on issues of taxes and school funding.
Yet every few years there would be a sudden crisis when Shawnee County District Court Judge Terry Bullock (in response to a series of law suits filed by school districts, i.e., Mock, Montoy I, Montoy II, Montoy III, and Montoy IV.) would announce that the schools were woefully underfunded as a whole, and the poorer districts in particular. In response, whoever was governor and in leadership in the state legislature would meekly comply with Bullocks’ demands and vote massive new tax and spending increases for the schools. Every time the crisis would be averted by a massive infusion of money (i.e., $2.8 billion between 1998 and 2013).
A few years later a crisis would erupt with the same rhetoric:
“The schools are being deliberately underfunded, and unless X more dollars are spent (most recently, $1.6 billion was the sum demanded), public education will not survive in Kansas. X dollars is the bare minimum that human decency permits. We, as Kansans, should be deeply ashamed of what this stinginess and mean-spiritedness says about us as a state!” (Never mind that there is similar school funding litigation going on in forty-five other states.) My personal favorite is the mantra; “Is it good for the Children?”
After two or three times, it should begin to dawn on us as Kansas voters/tax-payers and readers of the KC Star that we’re being scammed. By definition, you can never spend enough money to satisfy those who personally profit from government spending. A case in point is former State Senator John Vratil.
Vratil’s biggest law clients were the Shawnee Mission and Blue Valley School Districts. At one time he was married to a member of the BV School Board, and he voted on appropriations for those schools as a member of the Kansas legislature. Obviously the more money that went to the school districts, the more money that was available to pay legal fees to Lathrop & Gage, Vratils’ law firm. Vratil had a conflict of interest in voting on school funding measures since his livelihood depended on the school districts he was funding.
When the issue of a conflict of interest was raised, Vratil brushed it off by saying he didn’t get money from the entities whose funding he was voting on, his law firm did. Apparently, the Kansas Governmental Ethics Commission (Carol Williams, chair), accepted this explanation because there was never any investigation of this glaring conflict. (Meanwhile, the Commission threatened conservative candidates with ruinous “audits,” involving huge fines for clerical errors in filing campaign finance disclosure forms.)
No matter how many times the Kansas Courts (“Terry & The Supreme”) forced whoever was governor and in the legislature to boost taxes and increase spending, the Star editorial and opinion columnists would talk about how “they” were keeping our schools from being funded. Since the state’s political leadership was largely of the Star’s own choosing, it was hard to see who this nebulous evil “they” were!
What made this whole scam plausible was that it was cloaked in a veneer of jurisprudential respectability with a claim that the courts weren’t overreaching or intruding in areas best left to the legislative branch, but simply fulfilling a constitutional mandate to provide a “suitable” education.
The actual proceedings before Bullock bordered on the farcical. The plaintiffs hired a consulting firm, Augenblick & Meyers, made up of former educators, to consult with current educators and ask the latter how much money they thought they needed to run their schools. Not surprisingly, the answers tended to err on the side of generous funding. Only such “expert” testimony in favor of the plaintiff school districts was considered in these cases, the outcomes of which were about as predictable as a Stalinist show trial. (The only thing missing to make the analogy complete was forced confessions from the defendants, extracted by torture.)
Judge Bullock conducted court with the dignity and restraint of Chuck Barris on The Gong Show in the late 70’s. Bullock was loud and abusive to those he didn’t like. You could count on being interrupted, shouted down, and insulted. In the case I saw him preside over, he had clearly prejudged, i.e., he appeared to have made up his mind how he was going to rule before he’d heard any factual evidence or legal arguments.
The other frightening thing was the eerie way matters that had political overtones invariably ended up assigned to his court even though new cases are supposed to be randomly assigned between the judges (there are 15 District Court Judges in Shawnee County).
Three cases involving political figures I was familiar with all ended up in Bullock’s court.
In two of them my clients sought judicial review of an action by a state agency, which is supposed to involve notice and hearing like a regular civil case. In both cases, the petitions for review were denied on the mornings I filed them, with Judge Bullock simply writing “Petition Denied” on the cover sheet of the petitions I’d filed and faxing them back to me.
Judge Bullock was in some ways a throwback to the “hanging” judges of the Old West, particularly the legendary “Judge” Roy Bean, who dispensed a very rough kind of justice from his saloon/court room in Langtry, Texas on the Rio Grande border with Mexico in the 1880’s and 1890’s.
Like Judge Bullock, Justice of The Peace Roy Bean’s “Law West of The Pecos,” was considered “colorful,” “cantankerous,” and he was regarded as a “character.” Many even considered their actions quite humorous, particularly if you were not on the receiving end as a lawyer or litigant. An especially “cute” story found at Bean’s Wikipedia site described an incident where an Irish immigrant (one of thousands working on a railroad in the area), one Paddy O’Rourke, was charged with killing a Chinese laborer. When a mob of enraged fellow Irishmen surrounded the saloon/court room and threatened to lynch Bean if their compatriot was not released, Bean looked at the one law book that he possessed, the 1879 edition of the Revised Statutes of Texas. After consulting that text, “Judge” Bean announced that while homicide was defined as the killing of a human being, he could find no law against killing a “Chinaman.” Case dismissed! What a laff-riot!
The State of Kansas has been a party to a similar delicate (“eloquent” according to his defenders) exercise of justice by Judge Terry Bullock except this time you, the Kansas taxpayer, are the “Chinaman.”
When Bullock’s long running Reign of Error finally came to a close upon his retirement from the bench in 2006, I was hopeful that his baleful influence was at an end. The problem was that he left behind a legacy of poorly reasoned decisions that could tie the hands of the Kansas Courts and legislature for years to come.
Fortunately, there may be a light at the end of the tunnel in the form of the recent Gannon decision by the Kansas Supreme Court. The Court was careful, first of all, to distinguish between school funding equity (how the money was divided to insure fairness between the rich and poor districts) and school funding adequacy (how much money needs to be spent to meet the constitutional requirement of providing a suitable education.)
In Gannon, the Court charged the legislature with the burden of alleviating the shortfall for poorer districts as a result of the recession. The determination of adequacy was sent back to the lower court (“remanded”) but with instructions to apply a new standard. Specifically, the Kansas Supreme Court said you have to consider results or outcomes in academic achievement in deciding these issues, and not just money spent. We may finally have a chance to focus on the real aim of education in Kansas, how to best prepare students with the skills to become productive citizens. Over the last generation we’ve gone badly astray.
Contrary to what the KNEA and its enablers in the legal and political Establishment tell us, the purpose of educational spending is not to line their pockets.