Ultraconservatives in the Kansas Legislature aren’t high on public education. That’s obvious.
Determined to shift tax dollars toward support for private school options, they’ve repeatedly devised strategies to avoid funding K-12 public schools as required by the Kansas Constitution.
The latest stunt saw Republican leadership target a top advocate for public schools.
Dale Dennis, deputy education commissioner of the Kansas State Department of Education, became a handy scapegoat for ultraconservatives out to bolster their own political agenda.
Dennis, the state’s chief school finance official, was called out over an audit that showed the education department paid out $45 million in extra transportation money over the past five years.
He was directed many years ago by legislative leaders to follow a calculation to equalize transportation services between school districts. Since then, Dennis has openly and repeatedly briefed state lawmakers on the practice — one that appears to be a clear departure from the law.
Legislators over the years failed to acknowledge and correct the problem. Yet Senate President Susan Wagle and House Speaker Ron Ryckman recently cried foul and demanded Dennis be suspended without pay.
Wagle’s hypocrisy was notable in pleading for “ensuring that the rule of law is followed” over the transportation aid, when her ultraconservative alliance has steadfastly resisted Kansas Supreme Court rulings calling for the lawful funding of K-12 public schools.
That said, there’s no denying news on the transportation funds was alarming. Further inquiry is indeed in order.
Still, claims of Dennis being a reckless lawbreaker were absurd.
The swift, passionate defense of Dennis statewide centered on his reputation as a trustworthy expert on school finance, but also was pushback against far-right legislators fighting the constitutional requirement to adequately fund K-12 public schools — and using attacks on the high court and now Dennis to steer attention away from their own failings.
While the State Board of Education rightly rejected the request to suspend Dennis, it also was correct to demand greater transparency and accuracy in how taxpayer dollars are distributed to school districts.
Addressing problems within the complex system won't be easy. Kansas lawmakers must set aside political gamesmanship and focus on fixing school finance.