Sutherland: Education in Kansas Meets Plato’s Cave


Steve Rose

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.)

chuck_barrisFor the non-lawyer reader, a little background is in order.

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.

MV5BMTEwNTI4OTk2MjFeQTJeQWpwZ15BbWU2MDMzMjY5OQ@@._V1_SY317_CR3,0,214,317_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.)

Platos-Man-Cave-580x440-1In 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.
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29 Responses to Sutherland: Education in Kansas Meets Plato’s Cave

  1. hot harley says:

    excellent article! finally some facts and data….

    • BrotherSunday says:

      Go Eat at Vila Capri and stfu

      • hot harley says:

        ya know…we ate there last week…
        but its villa…not vila you stupid idiot!
        love the pizza!!!!!!
        could you add some intelligent writing to the conversation plese..or did they nto teach you that in prison!

        • Stomper says:

          Yep, the pizza IS great. Also have to order Tony’s Eggplant Parmesan. Family recipe. Sad when when they close.

  2. Steveo says:

    Nice job and I could not agree more. As a parent of 2 kids in the Blue Valley school district, I can assure you they could do with much less. We have 5 high schools within a 5 mile radius of our home. The fixed costs of the administration and facilities, the obscene excesses of the sports, and the shakedown for additional fees during the year are ledgendary. They need to go on a financial diet yesterday.

    • BrotherSunday says:

      Has Blue Valley closed any schools? Why does SM (USD512) keep doing so?

      • hot harley says:

        stfu up brother sunday? get your facts straight and ifyou
        need answers to these stupid questions that only a
        5 year old would ask…call me or email me.
        only an idiot with no brains would ask that…its quote obvious..
        the population in sm district has movedand been altered.
        they got cutbacks in funds….
        they needed to consolidate schools to save money because
        state cut funds…
        if you need any more anwers maybepick up a paper or
        read a notice about the district.
        obviously you live in the inner city and know nothing
        about whats happening in the burbs.
        good day…
        oh and Italian gardens to go also has some excellent
        meatballs…meatballs…just like your brain!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

      • Stomper says:

        Population shifts for school age kids. Blue Valley growing, especially BV West and BV Southwest. SMSD population flattening out, even dropping in some of the high school districts.

  3. the dude says:

    But… it’s supposedly for the childrents, right?!?!?!
    Consolidation, that would help in a lot of the rural districts.

  4. John Altevogt says:

    Unfortunately, the 7 dwarfs simply passed the buck back to a three judge panel led by one of the worst excuses for a human being in the state of Kansas, yet another Topeka “judge”, Franklin R. Theis. Thus continues the tale of corruption and incompetence for which the Kansas judiciary has become notorious.

  5. chuck says:

    Excellent read.

    Another look behind the curtain at the hypocrisy and self aggrandizing, lickspittle kleptocrats whose bank accounts inflate at the same rate as their faux sanctimony at the expense of the proles. God bless the “Narrative”.

  6. Jeff says:

    Mr Sutherland:

    Instead of using the issue of school financing as a jumping off point to settle old scores with some moderates in Johnson County, and then quote skewed statistics from ALEC and KPI as facts, ask those of us whose children go to public schools about the financing question. Ask teachers who haven’t gotten a pay raise in five years how wealthy the districts are. Ask parents of special needs children about the overworked and underfunded staff that tries to mainstream their child into the public school environment. Ask the parents about their schools, in Johnson County, that couldn’t afford a custodian on a daily basis or a nurse on site. Once you’ve done that, and gotten over your bile about certain individuals, perhaps then you can sit down with me and members of a grassroots group I’m a member of that is fighting for public education and discuss these issues.

    • Dwight D. Sutherland, Jr. says:

      How can these draconian austerity measures have taken place when we’re spending over $12,000 a student,more than we ever have before? How is it that Shawnee Mission has twice as many administrators as Wichita or Topeka with half as many students? Why are there three vice principals at my local middle school who never leave their offices,yet make over $125,000 a year? The answer,of course, is that the KNEA cuts back on only the most popular and visible programs and services to mislead the students and their families into thinking that we’re in desperate fiscal straits and that,guess what?, we need desperately to raise taxes.(One of their officers had too much to drink and laughingly described this tactic to a friend of mine at a cocktail party. They deliberately started with sports and music,knowing parents and students were emotionally most invested in those.) If we’re spending all this money and little of it makes it to the classroom (relative to other states) whose fault is that? I would submit it is the fault of the professional educators,the same people who are always crying poor. I have tried repeatedly to have dialogue with your side of the debate,only to be ambushed and abused at every turn. I was the one who proposed a public forum on school funding and approached the Mainstream Coalition. They never answered me but went ahead and held their own public forum with five people on their side and one on the other, a nice lady but one who had no higher education or training in debate or argument. The same was true when I offered to go on Steve Kraske’s radio show with liberal Tom Frank,incidentally a personal friend of mine. Kraske turned down my offer but got another guest,but one who was not well-versed in Tom’s book and with no training or expertise in radio or other forms of public speaking. In the debates and public forums I have managed to speak at I have been told to “Shut the blank up !”. If I cite a fact I’m accused of lying,if I reference and produce a document I’m accused of forging it. I would only be too happy to appear at a public forum or debate but I’ve been burned too many times to believe this offer,the first I’ve ever received,is in good faith. The only kind of conservative spokesperson your side will allow to be heard is one who is inarticulate and ill-informed. I have made numerous offers to debate and discuss these issues over the years and none has ever been accepted, just as my letters to liberals have never been answered. See my earlier posts at this blog for six different examples of my attempts to engage,all of which have ignored. If you’re sincere,you should start by disclosing your identity and that of the group you represent. We’ll go from there.

      • chuck says:

        That sure sounds more than fair to me!

        Dwight, by himself against all comers.

        There, with apologies to Glaze, is a fight we would all show up to see. What say you Jeff?

      • Stomper says:

        Good comments Dwight. As you know, I’m one of those liberals you talk about and I think Jeff makes several valid points. However you hit the nail on the head with regards to SMSD administrators. SMSD is ridiculously top heavy with regards to administration, and way, way too much money goes that direction. Money that could be far better spent for teachers salaries, nurses, custodians, special needs kids, etc. as correctly noted by Jeff. Also know of long time administrators that retired to draw pensions and then returned to the district to draw 6 figure salaries. Money needs to be spent efficiently and go to the classroom first and foremost.

        Glad to know Tom Franks is a personal friend. Continue to listen and learn from him. 🙂 He wrote a great book.

  7. John Altevogt says:

    I liked Franks book (as well as the movie) and thought he did a better job of capturing our ideas than the local reporters, but always found it strange that that great man of the people only chose to associate with you, a fellow denizen of Mission Hills. Despite repeated invitations I could never get Mr. Working Class to set foot in Wyandotte County and always felt that his book was payback to his Mission Hills and frat boy pals for not letting him play with them.

    • Dwight Sutherland says:

      It is widely believed,with more than a little truth,that FDR’s New Deal was a payback for his not getting asked to join the most exclusive of Harvard’s equivalent of fraternities,the final clubs.(This same club,The Porcellian,looms large in recent business history,since it was the scene in “Social Network”of the two jocks’-the Winklevoss twins- condescending meeting with Mark Zuckerberg,where he decides to steal the whole concept of Facebook from them.) Thus it is that we owe Mr. Frank’s jihad against wealth and privilege to the Pan-Hellenic Council at KU. I’m also reminded of Robert Byron, a British bon vivant and parlor leftist,who avoided his fellow Socialists the night of his election to Parliament in 1945 in order to go party with his Conservative cronies,including the man he’d just defeated! This goes to your second point, John. Frankly, I think Tom owes you a profound debt of gratitude for getting out the story how the New York Times trashed “What’s The Matter With Kansas?” in a pure spite move because he’d revealed how they’d been pranked into publishing a serious review of a non-existent ‘Grunge Dictionary’. It’s a great yarn and one that puts Tom in a good light,you in a great-good humored and magnanimous-light and those schmucks at the NYT,petty and vindictive as they are,in the worst light possible!

  8. Jeff says:

    Mr Sutherland:

    To paraphrase Barney Frank, I would rather have a discussion with a table leg than go over the KPI and ALEC talking points over and over again. As an example, you know the $12,000 spending figure you cite, includes, among other items, pension money the teachers put into their own retirement funds. It (the $12,000) is a phony debate point figure with the the numbers $3,800 to $4,300 much more accurate as to what is spent on each child (and is greater for special needs kids.)

    I also hesitated to respond immediately to you because the Kansas legislature is currently debating this issue and I was hopeful they would show some moxie and do right for public schools. Sadly, my very low expectations for the Senate were not even met. Property tax credit for home schooling or private schooling, the tax-credit “scholarship” and cuts to transportation and at-risk kids are just some of the ideas passed last night. And how did they propose to offset these massive cuts? Why, by allowing the LOB (property taxes) to make up the difference. Wasn’t the whole point of the Supreme Court decision regarding equity, that the richer districts were able to raise more money? And let us not forget that they also voted to defund Common Core, a program that the state has already spent money on, but is viewed by some (wrongly) as the federal government (Obama) taking over local eduacation -see Mary Pilcher-Cook.
    Hopefully the House will deny all of these wrongheaded ideas (since conservatives no longer control the Kansas Board of Education, they are, through the legislative branch, attempting to create and approve curriculum. Can evolution and science standards be far behind?) As a parent with a special needs child in the Blue Valley School District, I am extremely concerned about the radical agenda that Brownback and his cronies are trying to push. (One other example would be the ALEC sponsored literacy bill which was defeated last year. Gee, I wonder if for-profit learning centers, a large contributor to ALEC were behind that idea?)

    As to you not being able to speak at a public forum, I have been to many over the years and have never seen you, or anyone, denied a chance to speak or express an opinion.

    • Dwight Sutherland says:

      Apparently you didn’t attend various of the Mainstream Coalition meetings over the years or the meetings at the Kansas City Public Library where leftist speakers have appeared. The most I’ve been allowed is one question from the floor and even then if I attempt any follow up I’m jeered at and shouted down.The more significant point is that no one on the liberal(Oh, I’m sorry,is it now the “moderate” or is it “progressive”?)side of the ledger has ever been willing to debate or discuss these matters with me in a forum. The fact that you still won’t reveal your identity tells me all I need to know about your honesty by your willingness to take a stand publicly.(By the way your a——e buddies at the Mainstream would not let anyone even ask a question at their events unless you gave your name and the city in which you lived , a clear intimidation tactic meant to scare off hostile questioners for fear of retribution.) We can argue about base aid versus total dollars spent until the cows come home. Just tell me where the blank my property taxes,up ten fold in twenty years,plus the 8.7% in income taxes I paid for years to Kansas and my city,went to? From what you’re telling me it isn’t going where it needs to. Where is it going? How much is enough? If we gave into your financial blackmail,by spending all the additional money you insist is the bare minimum,how do we know you won’t be back in a few years with more extortionate demands?(As you have four other times-1989,1991,2004,and 2010?)

      • Stomper says:

        Dwight; You need to ease up a bit on the attack dog mode. While not the optimum, this isn’t the worst possible forum for an open debate. Use it. You criticize Jeff for not revealing his identity but then you criticize the Mainstream Coalition for requiring the same. Jeff has at least revealed he is the parent of a special needs child in the Blue Valley district. Obviously has skin in the game and revealed his motives. Not all liberals are a-holes. They just see a role/responsibility for government. Other than fixing the roads, funding public education is about the most important priority for state legislatures. Let’s see if we can find some commonn ground.

        • Dwight D. Sutherland, Jr. says:

          It’s one thing to ask a question at a public forum. You should be able to do that without revealing your identity and running the risk of retaliation.(That seems to be a natural extension of the right of free speech.) It’s a different matter when it involves an attack on someone in the media,coupled with a challenge to defend their position publicly, while you,the attacker hide in anonymity ! (This is also the problem with talk radio,where idiots can slander you with complete impunity.)My annoyance is in large part due to the fact that thanks to an argument with a Star reporter in 1978 I can’t get a letter to the editor published to this day. Now I’m challenged to defend my views publicly by someone who won’t even disclose his identity or that of the “grass roots”group he purports to speak for. His anger is misplaced. It should be directed at the professional educators who are taking for themselves in salaries and benefits the money that should go to help his child.

          • Stomper says:

            Thanks Dwight. The fact that the Star won’t publish a letter from you borders on outrageous. I do take a bit of issue with you on commenters annonymity, however. While you, Hearne, and Paul Wilson know my identity, I think I’m annonymous to the rest here. As long as a commenter is civil and rational in expressing their thoughts and questioning commenters or writers, I don’t see any problem with challenging positions of others. Revealing one’s identity should not be a prerequiste. Whether one is being “attacked” is perceptional, I guess. In any event, thanks, as always for contributing pieces to KCC. I think we all agree that you have raised the bar and encouraged discourse. While I normally don’t agree with your politics, at least you support your positions and are willing to jump back in with clarifications when you’re questioned. I also appreciate Jeff contributing his thoughts here as well. They appear to me to be well thought out and accurate, at least from his perspective. I hope the discussion will continue as public education deserves the attention of all of us.

  9. Devin Wilson says:

    Dwight, you are reading directly from the AFP-KPI playbook. If you look at the state of Kansas as a whole, you would see the cuts and sacrifices being made. Locally, it’s class sizes, K-5 should be capped at 15-17; studies and common sense would agree. I question your motives, as they seem political solely, as it appears you have been in this arena for decades, compared to my 381 days. I’m in this for my kids, not some extremist ideology. We can do better as Kansans, despite our political past.

    • Dwight D. Sutherland, Jr. says:

      Check out my post “Up On Brownback Mountain or I Just Wish I Knew How To Quit You !”and tell me how I’m just a shill for him politically.( I should add that it was the featured article at the STOP BROWNBACK website.!) Tell me again how you’re “just in it for the kids” ,as if nobody else has any self-interest,financial or political,at stake here. Again,forget the boiler plate rhetoric about “Is it good for the children?”or “some extremist ideology” and answer the questions I’ve raised about all the top heavy administrative costs here in Jo Co. Why isn’t the money ending up in the classroom? Until you get serious about answering that, I can’t take you (or any of the other KNEA trolls) seriously.

  10. vincent vega says:

    Take a leisurely drive out to BV Southwest HS (running by BV West while at it) and then suggest with a straight face that there isn’t enough tax money going for new schools….seriously!

  11. Devin Wilson says:

    You misjudged me. Not a KNEA troll, as you called me. Not smart enough to be politically savvy. My agenda is my kids, and the schools from which I came.
    You seem passionate about your views. Claims about education funding getting swallowed up by administration, I would welcome more information please. That is a claim by others as well, but LPA audits prove low resolution, with just “cut here and there” which aren’t real efficiencies.
    Thanks for the opportunity to comment here,

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