What’s the Matter With Kansas? School Cuts, Not Michelle Obama

The drama over the first lady’s planned graduation speech in Topeka is misplaced.

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FIRST LADY CAUSES BACKLASH OVER ACCESS, POLITICS

The News: More than 2,100 people have signed an online petition objecting to first lady Michelle Obama’s scheduled commencement speech at a Kansas high school graduation.

The criticism, as The Root reported, comes from parents and students worried that the first lady’s visit will limit the number of tickets for the May 17 ceremony. Parents also have expressed concern that Obama will make a political speech, as the day will mark the 60th anniversary of the landmark Supreme Court ruling that desegregated schools, Brown v. Board of Education, which was brought against the Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas.

The Take: For one thing, the first lady almost never delivers political speeches. Not that she’s the cause of the ticket shortage anyway. (And not that the facts of her nonpolitical work ever soothe the haters.)

Every year, parents across America beg, borrow and steal to get more tickets for their children’s graduations. Schools can never print enough of them. Demand is increasing because more school districts, such as that of Topeka, Kansas, this year, are trying to save money by holding one commencement for multiple high schools.

What should upset students and parents in Topeka is the reason for the cost-cutting and its impact on achievement. School spending in Kansas has had severe cuts since 2009, placing Kansas at the center of the new national debate over the duty of states to adequately fund public education. Kansas’ Supreme Court recently ordered the restoration of funding to the constitutionally mandated level, particularly in poor school districts such as Topeka’s, where 77 percent of the students qualify for free or reduced lunch.

Topeka can’t blame a ticket shortage on more graduates taking up seats. The graduation rate in Kansas rose to 85 percent last year, nearly 10 points above the national average. Yet the rate in the Topeka school district dropped to 68 percent. As Kansas slashed school spending over the previous four years, black students fared worse than the average 12th-grader: 76 percent of blacks statewide graduated while just 64 percent of black pupils in Topeka got diplomas.

Enrollment in the Topeka school district is 48 percent minority, including 20 percent African American, and 42 percent white.

So, allow me to congratulate Topeka’s Class of 2014 and offer some advice: Appreciate your community not just for its history which helped make this president and first lady possible, but for the benefits of integration that have once again become alarmingly uncommon in America. Years from now you will forget how many tickets you scored, but two things you will always remember—your commencement speaker and surviving the ceremony.

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