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Education Funding Wasn't Always Such a Fiery Topic in Kansas

Kansas school bus (Photo by J. Schafer)
Kansas school bus (Photo by J. Schafer)

Education funding is a hot topic in Kansas and... across the nation. Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders has even been calling for tuition-free college. As Commentator William Jennings Bryan Oleander tells us, there was a time when education funding was a lot less controversial.

The comments of William Jennings Bryan Oleander, otherwise known as Tom Averill, Writer-in-Residence at Washburn University



Oleander on Kansas Education

Well, folks, nearly 100 years ago, in 1917, the premier journalist of Kansas, William Allen White, took a trip to Europe. Along with Henry J. Allen, who would become Governor of the Sunflower State in 1919, White was part of a Red Cross inspection team, this in the summer after the United States entered World War I, on April 6, 1917.

White wrote a book, The Martial Adventures of Henry and Me, published by Macmillan in 1918. White’s memoir exemplifies all the ways in which you can take someone out of the country, but you can’t take the country out of the someone, or the two someones of White and Allen, and the country they can never leave is Kansas.

White recognizes while visiting France, Italy, and England, that World War I is not simply a war between nations. As he writes: “We fight a war for one thing, win the war and get quite another thing.” That “quite another thing,” according to White, is the “changed relations of men.” White predicts a new order, what he calls a “New heaven and a New Earth.” He predicts the end of autocracy and plutocracy all over Europe, a rise in wages, in working class power, in women’s rights, and in economic parity and control.

And the key to the New Heaven and New Earth, he writes, is education. At the end of his journey, he takes his hotel elevator to the fourth floor. The elevator conductor is a woman, whose husband has been wounded at the front. She has two children, three and five years old. White exhorts her: “You must give them an education—a good one; send them to college. If they’re going to get on in this new world they will need every ounce of education you can stuff into them. But it will be a splendid thing for both of you working for that.” Then he asks, “Is education expensive in England?”

“Very, sir,” she answers. "I hardly see how we can do it, sir!"

“That’s too bad,” responds White. “Now in our country education, from the primer to the university, is absolutely free. The state does the whole business and in my state they print the school books, and more than that they give a man a professional education, too, without tuition fees—if he wants to become a lawyer or a doctor or an engineer or a chemist or a school teacher!

“All the kids in my town, and in my state, and in my whole section of the country go to the common schools. Children should start life as equals. There is no snobbery so cruel as the snobbery that marks off childhood into classes!”

Folks, that was in 1917. Now, it’s 2016. Instead of a poor London woman wondering how she can send her children to schools, it is the Kansas legislature, saying about school funding, “I hardly see how we can do it, sir!” Instead of the democracy of public education, legislators contemplate vouchers for private schools, creating classes of children. Instead of suitable education being free, and a right of the citizenry, it costs dearly—especially at the highest levels.

Would that we had the bragging rights now that we had in 1917, when Kansans could lecture Europe about democracy and equality instead of setting an example for insufficient public resources and private wealth.  

A suitable education: wouldn’t that be splendid, as White said, to be working for that?