Sunday, January 26, 2014

Sermon: "Visions of Paideia & The Politics of Public Education" (Delivered 1-26-14)

My remarks this morning are bookended by appealing to a concept from Ancient Greece. I first encountered the concept of paideia when I was a student in college. Paideia was the name given to a week-long event held on campus immediately before the start of the spring semester in which students, professors, and community members were invited to offer and attend informal classes. Despite the fact that participation was voluntary and no credit or compensation was offered, professors and students alike spent a considerable amount of time preparing lessons and lectures, and students flocked to these classes morning, afternoon, and evening in order to learn something new. It was a little like Communiversity. The true meaning of paideia defies easy definition. It can mean learning for learning’s sake. However, it would be more accurate to think of paideia as education that helps to form us as human beings. You can contrast paideia with the Greek word techne, or learning in order to master a skill. Paideia is education that shapes our lives. In Latin, the term that comes the closest is “Humanitas.” Humanities, we’d say.

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This morning I am going to talk about public education, funding public education, and the politics of funding education. We are experiencing a crisis in public education funding here in Kansas. This may seem like an unusual topic to bring up in a church service. I believe I’m justified in talking about politics and public education for at least two reasons. The first reason is that this is a subject that matters. How we fund public education impacts the well-being of our children and the well-being of our communities, in the present as well as in the future. How we fund education can help determine social mobility, whether our society is one of opportunity and possibility for all or one of a growing divide between rich and poor, between the privileged and the disadvantaged. Marilynne Robinson writes, “If we educate [our children] well, we give them the means to create a future we cannot anticipate. If we cheat them, they will have the relatively meager future we have prepared for them.” Simply put, education matters and religion has a responsibility to address things that matter.

The second reason I’m justified about talking about public education is that it matters to us. We are the parents who send our children to Kansas schools, the teachers and staff members who work at Kansas schools, and the tax-payers who pay for education. We are the ones who worry about our children and grandchildren. We worry about whether or not we will be able to call our state a good place to live. I’m speaking on this topic because education matters to us and as a minister I’m called to speak about what matters to us. This morning I want for us to grow in solidarity with each other. I want us to commit to work, independently and together, to support stronger public education in Kansas.

State funding for education initially decreased under Governors Sebelius and Parkinson who compromised with the legislature on austerity measures as a result of the financial crisis and recession. These cuts have been preserved, and actually increased, under the Brownback administration, as the governor and legislature have chosen to make enormous cuts to the income tax, especially for the wealthiest Kansans, rather than restore funding for education. According to the Topeka Capital-Journal, from 2008 to the present day, Kansas has cut spending on public education by 16.5%, the fourth deepest cuts of any state in our country. Only Oklahoma, Alabama, and Arizona have made steeper cuts to public education. Adjusted for inflation, we spend $950 less per student now than we did five years ago.

A lawsuit filed in 2010 challenged whether the legislature was fulfilling its constitutional obligation to provide suitable funding for education. Last year a panel of judges ruled that education is, in fact, underfunded in Kansas and ordered the legislature to increase funding by around $600 per student at an annual cost of about $440 million to the state. That ruling was appealed to the Kansas Supreme Court, and the decision was expected to be handed down at the beginning of this month. We’re still waiting. In fact, I’ve heard a rumor that the court may wait until after the legislative session adjourns in May to issue its ruling. A New York Times opinion piece from earlier this month stated,

If the Kansas Supreme Court orders restoration of the funding, legislators are threatening to amend the state’s Constitution by removing the requirement for “suitable” school funding and to strip Kansas courts of jurisdiction to hear school finance cases altogether. And if the amendment fails, they have vowed to defy any court order for increased funding or, at the very least, take the money from higher education.

So, that’s where we are now: A Kansas Supreme Court decision looming, a defiant legislature preparing to dig in and resist, and Kansas’ children and educators caught in the middle, trying to learn and teach in underfunded school systems.

This drama that we observe locally is part of a larger campaign designed to attack and undermine public education in our country. Indeed, it is a part of a larger movement to attack most forms of government spending, and whatever organizations, institutions, unions, and laws that are left that stand in the way of plutocracy. The unemployed are portrayed as lazy. Welfare recipients are attacked as morally deficient. SNAP recipients are called gluttonous. (Stay after the second service this morning and participate in the Harvesters “pack-a-sack” service project and you’ll see that there is nothing glamorous about receiving food assistance in America.)

Along these same lines, educators are attacked and slandered. Teachers are called  unaccountable. Teachers unions are called thuggish. Schools are said to be failing and underperforming. Last spring, a right-wing think tank known as the Kansas Policy Institute ran a series of ads around the state claiming to show that a shockingly high percentage of Kansas students were not reaching academic standards. The advertisements were fraudulent. The true percentage of students not achieving academic standards was quite small. Attacks on public education try to paint public schools as inefficient, wasteful, and underperforming. They try to get voters to support legislators who will starve public schools of funding. It is a vicious cycle. Disinvest in education. Then criticize school performance in order to justify further disinvestment in education.

Why the attacks on public education? I think the attacks have multiple and overlapping origins. But, most of the attacks simply have to do with money. Education is by far the biggest budget item at the state level. Education is paid for with tax dollars. If you don’t want to pay taxes, you don’t want to fund public education. In recent years we’ve seen enormous income tax cuts here in Kansas, cuts that have disproportionately benefited the wealthiest individuals, those who have the most and who need tax cuts the least. That $440 million that the courts ruled needs to go back into education? That puts those tax cuts in jeopardy, not to mention presenting an obstacle to the Brownback administration’s overall goal of eliminating the state income tax altogether.

Furthermore, in an age of privatization, when so many government functions, everything from prisons to Medicaid to child support collections, are being turned over to private, for-profit companies, it would only make sense that private educational institutions would want a slice of the pie as they lobby for a voucher system. It’s about money. Should those who live and work in Kansas be required, through their taxes, to provide a suitable education for all the children of Kansas? Should those of with the most wealth, the most resources, especially those who have more than they could ever possibly need, be obligated to provide more for the common well-being of all? My answer to these questions is a resounding yes!

The extreme opposite of public education for all is the idea that every family should fend for itself, that public education should be abolished and that it should be limited to those who are able to pay for it. That’s a third world approach to education. That’s not the world I want to live in. Currently, Kansas education funding laws provide for a nominally level playing field, sort of. It is actually more of a level playing field than exists in other states. The operational budget for school districts – the money that pays for teacher and staff salaries, for example – comes from the state, but school districts are able to fund buildings and technology from local resources. This raises an interesting question. Should residents of Johnson County be required to subsidize education across the state? Should every district have to fend for itself? I’m for a system that levels the playing field though I am also sympathetic to communities in wealthier districts who want to be able to go above and beyond for students, even more than they already do through booster activities, fundraisers, and private educational spending. If we let each district fend for itself, we might help some children at the expense of others across Kansas. We fall short of the obligation we have to all.

If you want to go deeper into issues of education funding, I would recommend that you get in touch with Game On for Kansas Schools. I would also recommend attending the Mainstream Coalition forum at Colonial UCC in Prairie Village on February 20th. The title of that program is Education Under Assault.

It is a lie to say that public education is failing in Kansas, or in the United States, despite what those misleading ads from the Kansas Policy Institute may say. They are simply not true. It is fair to say that public education faces challenges. But it is stupid to argue that those challenges can be met and overcome by underfunding public education and starving our schools. Money matters! A recent report from the Albert Shanker Institute concluded that school spending is positively correlated with student outcome. At the same time, the challenges that we face are not as simple as just restoring funding to education. As long as the gap between rich and poor in our country is as massive at is, as long as poverty is endemic, there will continue to be inequalities in education.

When John F. Kennedy challenged our nation by saying, “We choose to go to the moon,” he didn’t turn around and cut NASA’s funding. No, he gave it ten times as much financial support. It was a common endeavor that we paid for together, accomplished together, and celebrated together. We should regard public education in the same way: a common endeavor, a national treasure, an institution of national pride that we need to pay for, accomplish, and celebrate together. Public education is a public good worthy of our investment.

Just as there are some looney tunes who insist that we never actually went to the moon, there are some people today who hold public education in contempt. At the beginning of this legislative session, not quite two weeks ago, Governor Brownback spoke at a Christian prayer gathering held in the Capitol’s Old Supreme Courtroom. It was there that he previewed his “State of the State” address, in which he blasted the Kansas Supreme Court. This prayer gathering featured speakers from the Concerned Women of America and the Culture Shield Network, a new right-wing Christian political organization based here in Kansas. Among the prayers spoken that day in front of the Governor and legislators, was a prayer that parents would “lay down their lives” to take back control over their child’s education, and that, “children will come out so strong that we will not lose them to secular colleges.” Secular colleges? You mean like KU and K-State? You mean like Washburn, Wichita State, Pittsburg State, and Emporia State? You mean like Johnson County Community College? What utter contempt for public education. What utter contempt for higher education. What fear and suspicion of learning and free inquiry. What anti-intellectualism.

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In the ancient Greek world there was the concept of paideia, an education that shapes our humanity. Not just education for the purposes of learning a specific skill, but education as formation, developing the essence of what it means to be human. Sorry, Concerned Women of America. Sorry, Culture Shield Network, but public education, when it does what it is meant to do, when it’s well-funded and given the resources it needs to thrive, is about formation. Not in any narrow, ideological sense. Not in a parochial sense. But in an expansive sense. It exposes children to the amazing insights of the natural sciences and the logic and language of math. It exposes children to foreign cultures and languages, to different worldviews, to diverse voices, and to the breadth of human diversity. It asks children to make sense of history and to learn from it, to understand our world and ourselves. It teaches children to ask critical questions and seek deeper understandings. It gives them exposure to music, art, drama, and sport. It forms children, helping them to become good citizens and productive members of society.

When education is underfunded and attacked, it is our children’s loss and our loss and our future’s loss. We can and must do better.