The Kansas Constitution of 1861 showed that Kansans valued public education highly. It provided...in Article 6, Section 2, "The Legislature shall encourage the promotion of intellectual, moral, scientific and agricultural improvements, by establishing a uniform system for common schools, and schools of higher grade, embracing normal, preparatory, collegiate and university departments."
Our very first Legislature passed a law levying a one-mill tax on all property in our new state for support of public schools. Early superintendents administered this law with fairness and frugality to run the network of elementary schools across the state. They also urged that the state levy be increased because public high schools were just over the horizon.
Horace Mann in Massachusetts had become the first state commissioner of education. Considered the father of American public schooling, he laid down six principles: (1) a people should not remain ignorant; (2) that education should be controlled and paid for by the interested public; (3) that this education is best provided in schools with children from all backgrounds; (4) that public education must be non-sectarian; (5) that education must be taught with the spirit, methods, and discipline of a free society; and (6) that teachers should be well-trained professionals.
New settlers in Kansas brought with them Horace Mann’s movement for free high
schools. And the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that tax money could be used for secondary education.
But after the first 18 years of state support, that one-mill property tax for Kansas schools was lost.
A financial panic and the grasshopper plague of the 1870s crippled the Kansas economy. Meanwhile, the educational demands on schools exploded...with enrollments tripling in less than 15 years.
In his 1963 history: 100 Years in Kansas Education, author C.O. Wright described attitudes that are reminiscent of the attitudes of some Kansans today. He wrote:
"The search for funds to finance the west wing of the Kansas Statehouse...led the Legislature in 1879 to drop the one-mill levy for schools.... Also behind the legislative blow to schools were eastern residents who complained they were financing the schools in the new western counties."
Funding of public schools by the state of Kansas remained miserly for nearly 60 years. Finally, in 1937, Kansas enacted a sales tax and a portion was used for schools.
Today, we are finishing State House construction, although it has not caused a raid on school funding. But the voices of the rich, mostly eastern school districts, complaining that their taxes are going to poorer western districts can still be heard.
New education reforms, not Horace Mann’s free high schools, but national education mandates are requiring more spending.
We still have immigrant children to teach.
And this economic downturn has been dramatic. State revenues are short $550 million dollars, a situation in proportion not unlike the 1870s.
Governor Brownback’s assertion that Kansas has "...known worse and overcome more" is certainly true of Kansas education.
Will the historians of 150 years-from-now look back in Kansas history and say that Kansans crippled their public education system once?....or twice?