- Associated Press - Tuesday, October 27, 2015

The Kansas City Star, Oct. 23

Pace picks up in Kansas GOP’s disappointing attacks on schools:

Rep. Scott Schwab of Olathe proved this week that he’s an outspoken Republican foot soldier in promoting Gov. Sam Brownback’s attacks on Kansas schools.

In an email to Olathe School District employees, Schwab unleashed his fury at district leaders, singling out Superintendent Marlin Berry, who has dared to point out problems in the Kansas Legislature’s new school funding strategy.

Schwab’s email included many of the same points Brownback and some other GOP legislators have used this year while criticizing Kansas educators.

Schwab contended the Olathe district has plenty of money. He said the district should be grateful for the new block grant funding the Legislature approved in early 2015 - even though a court panel already has found some parts of it violate the Kansas Constitution. And Schwab parroted Brownback in his opposition to stances held by the Kansas National Education Association.

“Dr. Berry sent a very depressing email on or around July 17 talking about the dire disposition of the district’s finances,” Schwab wrote to Olathe district employees. “It is difficult to go with passion into your daily work when the district’s top leaders are pulling your heart out of it. It was sad to see such poor leadership.”

This is all reminiscent of how Brownback has acted during his own rebukes of school officials. He has absurdly lashed out at the Kansas City, Kan., School District for buying a grand piano, blamed districts for somehow creating their own budget shortfalls and spoken out on how Kansas schools should use their reserve funds.

And just last month, Melika Willoughby, the governor’s deputy communications director, crassly blasted a system that allegedly forces Kansas to spend “millions more on new schools, administrative facilities and technology, while educators complain about the lack of operational funds.”

In their response this week to Schwab, Olathe school board members said, “We find it unfortunate that an elected leader chose to interrupt your workday and misuse the taxpayer funded email system the district provides for you to communicate with parents and peers.”

Olathe, the largest district in Johnson County, with almost 30,000 students, has had other problems with state legislators.

School officials in August asked for $458,000 in “extraordinary needs” funds to help educate more than 100 extra students this fall. But a special state panel, which included Brownback, gave Olathe nothing.

Meanwhile, the Kansas City, Kan., School District - which is part of a lawsuit aimed at boosting future K-12 funding by hundreds of millions of dollars a year - requested about $2 million to deal with higher enrollment but received just $400,000.

In coming months, the Legislature and educators need to work on developing a responsible funding formula for the most critical basic service financed by Kansas taxpayers.

On Friday, at a meeting of the Special Committee on K-12 Student Success, legislators gathered information on spending for classroom education, school bonds and teacher pensions. The panel’s next meeting is in November.

However, this committee needs to be much more than a Republican excuse for further shortchanging school districts.

Future meetings must take serious looks at how the state can funnel more money into classrooms while continuing to support excellent extracurricular programs, student support services and top-flight administrators who care deeply about the children in their care.

Part of this initiative should be providing clear explanations to Kansans on not just how much money is being spent on K-12 education but exactly how it’s used. As we have noted, for instance, the state actually spends $6 million less on general classroom aid than it did five years ago.

Getting something positive done will be made tougher by Brownback’s absolute refusal to reduce his excessive income tax cuts, which went into effect in 2013. Those cuts have badly failed to produce the jobs and revenues once promised.

In recent months, Brownback and the Legislature have sliced funding for some state programs and diverted money from other accounts simply to keep schools functioning.

For now, as Schwab’s recent email and Brownback’s continued comments show, GOP lawmakers seem content to bully school districts that dare to speak out on how taxpayers could finance better K-12 education in Kansas.


Lawrence Journal-World, Oct. 26

Bridging the state’s philosophical gap may be key to the future success of Lawrence and Kansas University:

Science fiction often is based on the writer’s vision of what will happen in the future. In some cases, those predictions prove to be disturbingly accurate.

That’s why it’s interesting to hear more about what a University of Kansas professor who has spent his career immersed in science fiction envisions for KU and Lawrence.

In a recent interview with the Journal-World, James Gunn, who has been associated with KU since 1955, shared his thoughts about change and its role in politics. “The idea of people wanting to resist change has grown as the country has become more conservative,” he said. That trend, he said, often puts politicians at odds with universities and university communities, which are in the business of anticipating, exploring and accommodating change.

“One of the things that makes the university a bastion of liberal thought is that people here are constantly engaged in the process of changing their minds,” he explained.

The more people know about just about anything, the less black and white that subject becomes. The academic community is comfortable with that situation, but others often are not. “The rest of the state is trying to save what it has rather than place bets on what it is going to have in the future,” Gunn said.

Learning to “recognize the validity of each others’ viewpoints” would benefit both liberals and conservatives, he said, “But that suggests something that is sort of anathema in today’s political environment - compromise.”

Gunn’s analysis of the link between politics and change is food for thought. So is the assertion that the future of Lawrence and KU is closely tied to its ability to work with, rather than separate itself from, the rest of the state.

Lawrence prides itself on being different and embraces KU’s role as a leader and an agent of change. As the state’s flagship university, KU should play a leadership role in Kansas, but it’s hard to be a leader if you can’t convince your followers you’re heading in the right direction.

Bridging that gap between Lawrence/KU and the rest of the state will require an effort from both ends of the political spectrum, as well as from top leadership of the university. The prospects for a successful meeting of the minds may seem like something from science fiction now, but who knows what the future will bring?


The Wichita Eagle, Oct. 23

Criminal-justice reform makes sense to everybody from President Obama to Charles Koch:

Even as Congress and the country appear hopelessly divided on almost everything, criminal-justice reform makes sense to everybody from President Obama to Charles Koch.

Lower crime rates, crowded prisons and tight budgets are among the factors fueling the movement. But so is new thinking about the nature of punishment, and a recognition that mandatory minimum sentences are neither fair nor fiscally prudent.

As the president noted in a discussion with law enforcement leaders on Thursday, “our criminal-justice system should treat people fairly regardless of race, wealth, station” and incarceration is one tool among others including drug diversion and treatment, effective re-entry programs, and prevention programs aimed at children.

Koch, CEO of Wichita-based Koch Industries, recently told Forbes magazine that criminal-justice reform can help fix poverty, and has raised concerns about prosecutorial abuses and inadequate legal representation as well as unduly harsh and disparate sentences.

The Charles Koch Institute is sponsoring a New Orleans summit Nov. 4-6 called “Advancing Justice: An Agenda for Human Dignity and Public Safety,” with speakers drawn from across the political and legal spectrums. The Kochs also have been involved in advocating for changes in civil asset forfeiture policies, and Koch Industries has stopped asking job applicants whether they’ve ever been convicted of a crime.

In a commentary early this year in Politico Magazine co-written with Koch Industries general counsel Mark Holden, Koch said: “After a sentence is served, we should restore all rights to youthful and nonviolent offenders, such as those involved in personal drug use violations. If ex-offenders can’t get a job, education or housing, how can we possibly expect them to have a productive life?”

In a key sign that the advocacy is leading to action, the Senate Judiciary Committee voted 15-5 Thursday to advance a bill to the full Senate that would give judges more flexibility in sentencing of certain low-level drug offenders, create programs to reduce recidivism and better prepare inmates for release - without going easy on violent offenders and drug traffickers.

To his credit, Sen. Jerry Moran, R-Kan., last week became a co-sponsor of the bill, which also has been endorsed by the NAACP and American Civil Liberties Union. The House is working on its own legislation toward a similar goal.

Because congressional action would only apply to federal crimes and prisons, the movement must find favor in more states as well. Last week saw the launch of a campaign by Kansans United for Youth Justice to stop sending low- and moderate-risk youth offenders to prison or other out-of-home confinement but focus instead on local rehabilitation programs. A juvenile justice work group also is pursuing reform recommendations to present to the 2016 Legislature.

Of course, just as common sense promises to prevail on the nation’s overincarceration problem, an election approaches. Campaigns tend to bring out the ads touting toughness on crime as a saintly trait.

But the U.S. is home to 5 percent of the world’s population and 25 percent of its prisoners. It’s time to stop devoting so many tax dollars to incarcerating so many nonviolent offenders, and destroying lives and communities in the process.


The Topeka Capital-Journal, Oct. 24

Veterans Affairs still stumbling:

The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs has restored access for the Kansas Commission on Veterans Affairs to the computer program it uses to process veterans’ claims for benefits.

That is the good news. The bad news is the Department of Veterans Affairs apparently still hasn’t broken the habit of getting in its own way.

In the most recent example, the Department of Veterans Affairs at about mid-afternoon Tuesday locked the state commission out of the program used to process claims because it hadn’t returned to VA a legal document stating the software program was safe and secure. However, the bureaucrats in Washington, D.C., had neglected to send the document to Topeka so it could be completed and returned.

Wayne Bollig, deputy director of the Kansas Commission on Veterans Affairs, said Wednesday the commission had been requesting the legal document for months but had heard little from the VA.

A story about the lockout and Sen. Jerry Moran’s efforts to resolve the issue was published Thursday in The Topeka Capital-Journal and at CJOnline.com.

Bollig said the VA restored access to the computer program at about noon Thursday and promised it would be maintained throughout the process of getting the paperwork done.

Granted, the program wasn’t accessible for only about two working days. But who knows how long the lockout would have lasted absent the intervention of a U.S. senator and yet another news report highlighting the VA’s incompetence? The Kansas Commission on Veterans Affairs processes hundreds of claims each month and sends them to the VA’s regional office in Wichita. Two working days lost is two too many.

Problems within the VA’s health care system came to a head last year with reports of systemic problems that caused delays in treating veterans’ health problems. Attempts by some VA medical facilities to hide the problem by keeping secret lists of patients awaiting care added fuel to the demands for change.

The secretary of Veterans Affairs resigned and President Barack Obama selected Robert McDonald to lead the department and clean up the mess. He was barely settled into the job when reports surfaced about leadership problems at the VA’s Office of Workforce Management in Topeka.

It is probably too soon to critique McDonald’s performance, given all the problems, and people, he inherited. But it isn’t too soon to say people working for the federal department should stop creating problems and focus more on solving them. If they don’t, they will just keep getting in their own way.

Members of The Capital-Journal Editorial Advisory Board are Zach Ahrens, Mike Hall, Fred Johnson, Ray Beers Jr., Garry Cushinberry, John Stauffer, Frank Ybarra, Jessica Hosman and Laura Burton.

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