Mr. Brownback: Tear down this wall

Written by Aaron Estabrook

Kansas public preschools are isolated and rare. Educators at all levels in Kansas are frustrated and fleeing.

As the dust settles from one of the worst legislative sessions in Kansas history, we acknowledge that class sizes are larger, we have a statewide teacher shortage bordering on crisis and we have cornered ourselves into a place where the State Board of Education finds it necessary to hire unlicensed people to educate our children.

I’ve been frustrated with our governor over many things but mostly about public education. I have learned in the military and also in various problem-solving roles like helping homeless veterans receive the care they deserve that treating the symptoms but ignoring the cause not only prolongs the problem but may actually exacerbate the stigma, the divisiveness and even spur the eventual collapse. The achievement gap doesn’t begin at third grade or high school but on the first day of kindergarten and it’s rooted in inequitable access to preschool. 

Our governor offers ideas and speaks passionately about improving reading scores, improving graduation rates and competing academically on a national level. For any of those admirable goals to be achieved he needs to simply get out of the way. His obstruction is isolating Kansas from its peers.

What he calls “innovation” looks a whole lot like the 1950s. The modern world has hit the accelerator on early education growth and investment. America is putting more than $2 billion into preschool development awards for states to compete. Innovation in 2015 means having higher standards and expecting more during a period of time when children are young and have the highest potential to learn and grow beyond anything we were able to do. We expect more from our children and we have to give them access to that opportunity.

Last year I asked the governor why he was blocking the application for Kansas to compete for more than 2 billion in preschool development dollars. He said he was waiting on the Legislature to make a decision. I spoke with the chair of the House Education Committee leading up to the session and asked him if he was ready to talk about the federal preschool development grants. Kansas had already missed the first deadline and the next one will be coming soon. Unfortunately, the representative said he had never heard of this and the governor’s office never mentioned anything about preschool development grants to him. 

I wasn’t surprised since Rep. Ron Highland (R-Wamego) had just recently been named chair of the House Education Committee. I assumed it was probably just that he hadn’t been informed quite yet. I watched with curiosity as the legislative session dragged on and yet not a single mention in the record long session for preschool development funding.

For the past 16 years our neighbor to the south, Oklahoma, has had universal public preschool for every 4-year-old in their state. Kansas has more than 40,000 4-year-olds who missed out on another guaranteed year of preschool while Oklahoma marches on and begins to see the success in their workforce.

If  you are still on the fence about “early education” investment, the research is in. All around the country Republican governors are using their authority to broaden and expand early education in their states. However, Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback has built a wall around early education by prohibiting development dollars for early investment and growth. Meanwhile, Kansans’ federal tax dollars are paying for early education initiatives in 18 other states: $226 million and over 18,000 additional children will be served in high-quality preschool programs in year one of the program. Not a single Kansan.

Due diligence has run its course. Brownback should tear down this wall and open our state to investments in early education, guaranteeing preschool for every 4-year-old in Kansas. If you do this, then your goal to improve third grade reading scores and high school graduation rates will become realized and not just another failed campaign promise.

 Aaron Estabrook is the Vice-Preisdent of the Manhattan-Ogden Board of Education, in Manhattan Kansas. This article is published with permission.

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