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

First lady Michelle Obama delivers a speech at a school in Chengdu, China, March 25, 2014.
ChinaFotoPress/Getty Images


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.



The News: Convicted violent offenders in Virginia will regain their right to vote two years sooner under changes announced by Gov. Terry McAuliffe.

About 350,000 people in Virginia are banned from voting because of prior felony convictions, according to civil rights groups. Nationally, laws banning felons from the voting booth have disenfranchised about 6 million people. By some estimates, 13 percent of America’s black men have lost their right to vote because of felony convictions.


Violent felons in Virginia now will have to wait three years after their release from prison, instead of the current five years, before they can apply to regain their voting rights. In addition, drug offenses no longer will be classified as violent felonies, allowing people convicted of nonviolent drug crimes to vote again immediately after serving their time.

Virginia and 10 other states permanently revoke the voting rights of those convicted of felonies, unless the government grants an exemption to a specific individual, according to the Brennan Center for Justice, a New York-based advocacy group.


The Take: As states double down on photo identification and requirements that can hinder voting, the restoration of the franchise for ex-cons is a fitting counterweight whose time is overdue.

The impact would transform the politics of several states. Attorney General Eric Holder has said 10 percent of Florida’s population is ineligible to vote because of the ban on felons voting. Multiple research has estimated that felons voting in Florida alone would have changed the outcome of the 2000 presidential election.


Florida Gov. Rick Scott, a Republican, extended the wait to five years before released felons can apply to vote again.

Holder earlier this year become the first attorney general to call for a repeal of the bans, and Democrats this month introduced the Democracy Restoration Act to carry it out.


But, of course, the legislation is dead on arrival, as it has been in past years. Lifting the ban could send an additional 2 million or so African Americans to the polls, and therein lies the rub for Republicans: Blacks generally tend to vote for Democratic candidates, and studies indicate that felons likely would follow suit.

Sen. Rand Paul, of Kentucky, has broken with fellow Republicans to support the restoration of voting rights, in addition to an end of mandatory-minimum sentencing for low-level drug offenses and reduction of the prison population.


Paul shrewdly eyes the chance to engender goodwill with blacks and Latinos as he contemplates a presidential bid. Most others Republicans can’t see beyond the donations of private prison companies and others that benefit from climbing incarceration rates.


The News: Florida state lawmakers have adopted a measure to tighten oversight of privately run juvenile detention facilies, following reports of the widespread abuse of youths in custody. 


The measure, introduced by state Sen. Darren Soto, a Democrat from Orlando, delivers the first legislative victory for Dream Defenders, the upstart Florida-based civil rights group formed in the wake of the Trayvon Martin killing. The Dream Defenders first gained national attention last year for occupuing the Florida Gov. Rick Scott’s office for 31 consecutive days to protest the state’s “Stand your ground” self-defense law.

Under the recent budget amendment, companies bidding for Florida contracts to run residential detention centers will undergo a review of their operations in other states. Florida’s Department of Juvenile Justice will be required to report at least quarterly the serious incidents that occur at facilities.


Dream Defenders pressed for reforms in response to a Huffington Post report about youths beaten, sexually abused, neglected, and served unsanitary food at facilities operated by Youth Services International in Florida and other states. The report found that the company holds more than $100 million in state contracts. Florida’s juvenile system has one of the highest reoffending rates in the nation.

Dream Defenders will be honored for its work on Wednesday in Washington by the Advancement Project, a Washington-based civil rights organization. Other honorees include entertainer and activist Harry Belafonte and the Rev. William Barber II, president of the North Carolina NAACP. 


The Take: Not even two years ago, 29-year-old Phillip Agnew had quit his job as a pharmaceuticals salesman to do what he hoped would be "something bigger." Last summer he spoke at the official ceremony marking the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington, introducing himself and his fellow Dream Defenders as leaders of a new generation of American civil rights activists.

Since Agnew and a handful of his old college friends formed the group, membership has grown to several hundred, and it has opened 10 chapters at colleges across Florida. 


Members of the group see their different backgrounds as a strategic advantage for promoting their agenda to the wide range of people. And for ensuring that the group's platform remains broad: Unlike old-line civil rights groups whose leaders refuse or have been slow to support gay rights, Dream Defenders advocates for same-sex marriage, as well as immigrants' rights.

Agnew, a Chicago native, is black, but the Defenders are a racially and ethnically diverse lot, and women are well-represented in leadership. The other founders include lead organizer Gabriel Pendas, 32, a Cuban American from Miami, and legal and policy director Ahmad Abuznaid, 29, a Palestinian-born Muslim who grew up in Fort Lauderdale, Fla.


The Dream Defenders earlier this year got a meeting with the state education and juvenile-justice officials to discuss alternatives to schools’ “zero tolerance” discipline policies, which have resulted in disproportionately more arrests of black and Latino kids for minor behavior violations.

But in a state controlled by pro-gun Republicans, who have pushed through massive expansions of the prison industrial complex, any progress will be incremental at best even for the most experienced and politically connected activists.


The group has taken some lumps. Its work to repeal or amend the “Stand your ground” law has flattened against the might of the gun lobby, which will likely be successful at urging the Republican-controlled Legislature to expand the law.

Now the group is pushing into the electoral process with a campaign to register 61,550 new voters—who represent the exact margin of Scott’s margin of victory in 2010—in an effort to block the governor’s re-election bid in November.


From the lectern at the March on Washington anniversary, Agnew had choice words for his civil rights elders: “We are the forgotten generation. We are the illegals. We are the apathetic. We are the thugs. We are the generation that you locked in the basement while movement conversations were going on upstairs. We are the generation you taught to be afraid of our light, our darkness, who we came to love.”

Corey Dade, an award-winning journalist based in Washington, D.C., writes The Take and is a contributing editor at The Root. He appears on MSNBC and CNN and contributes to NPR. He is a former NPR correspondent and political reporter at the Wall Street Journal. Give him your “take” on Twitter.


Corey Dade, an award-winning journalist based in Washington, D.C., is a former national correspondent at NPR and political reporter at the Wall Street Journal, the Boston Globe and other news organizations. Follow him on Twitter.

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