Saturday, July 30, 2016

You’ve Got Skin in the Game, So Get Out and Vote

When you got skin in the game, you stay in the game
But you don’t get a win unless you play in the game
Lin-Manuel Miranda’s lyrics, using a time honored sports analogy, succinctly capture a key essence of voting in our democracy. If citizens feel their vote, or their actions in supporting a particular candidate or world view, have little to no effect on the process of governing and how that impacts their lives, they often won’t vote. This ends up working to the advantage of some politicians and organizations who seek to benefit themselves or smaller groups at the expense of the larger whole. And change won’t occur unless individual citizens take notice, get educated on the issues, talk to others and actually get out and vote – actually play in the game

In the end, it’s the sum of our individual votes, or a lack of votes, that determines who sits in our elected offices. It determines who makes the policies, laws and regulations that help or hurt us in our day to day lives. It determines how the results of something as seemingly mundane or boring as an audit can be wielded like a sword to cut away at critical services, such as public education, which benefit us all. How so, you might ask?

Audits typically assess, in some form or another, an individual’s or organization’s operations, including financial records, in order to determine the presence of anything from small inefficiencies to outright fraud. However, they have limitations with respect to improving operational efficiencies due to their varying and often limited ability to account for human capital. These are the soft costs and benefits associated with the people who are part of the organization in question and/or who happen to be impacted by its operations.

In the case of public education, the relevant elements of human capital consist of such things as teacher effectiveness (impacted by their levels of engagement, happiness, physical comfort, etc.), student success (particularly their long term success), and the larger, long term impacts this has on the vitality and prosperity of a community, region, state, etc. An audit rarely attempts to account for the complete chains of cause and effect that lead from, for example, free meals for teachers/staff to 
  • higher teacher/staff engagement levels, then to 
  • improved student performance (compounded over the school career of students), then to 
  • improved student success over the course of their life, then to
  • increased regional economic prosperity. 
Or from an increase in the number of building level custodians (who also happen to be implementing a green cleaning policy) to 
  • increased building cleanliness, then to 
  • both greater building pride and increased teacher/staff and student health and performance/productivity, then to 
  • increased student success (compounded over the school career of students), then to 
  • improved student success over the course of their life, then to
  • increased regional economic prosperity.
In Kansas this has been the case whether we’re talking about the school efficiency audits conducted by our state’s Legislative Post Audit, the statewide efficiency review conducted by Alvarez & Marsal (which included a review of public education), and especially relative to the legislature’s previous Special Committee on K-12 Student Success. While these efforts attempt to address human capital to varying degrees, it isn’t to the level of detail laid out above.

I’m not arguing against audits. They can be very useful in helping ensure transparency and accountability, uncovering and/or preventing fraud, and even finding legitimate measures of increasing operational efficiency. But the process simply needs to do a better job accounting for the short and long term aspects of human capital (and natural capital). Granted, it can be difficult to do this, but it is possible. See the Kansas Center for Economic Growth’s (KCEG) report, Kansas Public Education: The Foundation for Economic Growth, for a pretty good example of incorporating human capital. I’ve also discussed it recently here – If We Say That Nature Is Priceless, Do We End up in Effect Treating It as Valueless?

The real problems occur when politicians or non-elected officials completely ignore the limitations of such audits with respect to human and natural capital (including the long term nature of their associated costs/benefits), and interpret the results of these audits within a derelict theoretical framework or ideology (like supply side economics) to justify wide and deep cuts. The result in Kansas is that our public services, like fallen combatants, lie hacked and strewn across the battlefield after an onslaught of free market berserker warriors wielding their swords in the name of Arthur Laffer. 

In the end, the results of such audits are used to justify education policies and cuts that aren’t driven by the goal of improving the teaching/learning process and student success, but instead are driven by the need to reduce the short term, annual costs associated with public education. As I’ve pointed out elsewhere, making such drastic cuts is the only way to achieve Governor Brownback’s march to zero income tax goal, supported by his ultraconservative legislative allies and organizations like Kansas Policy Institute (KPI) and the Kansas Chamber of Commerce. 

And that’s why elections matter. It’s why your vote in the primary on Tuesday, July 2nd, and later in the general election on November 8th, matters. It’s why any effort you can expend in supporting empirically minded, public education friendly candidates, including talking to your friends and family across the state, matters. The auditing process isn’t going to magically change overnight, but if we have officials in office who recognize the short and long term value of human capital, then the results of the audits performed are much more likely to be effectively interpreted.

It's as important for us to be involved in our democratic process now as it was when our nation was young, scrappy and hungry. So with apologies to Lin-Manuel Miranda, I urge you NOT to throw away your shot at making a difference. Rise up! Play in the game, and get out and vote.


And below are some resources for candidate listings, overviews and recommendations. Share widely (these and others you come across). Encourage your friends, family and coworkers from across the state to educate themselves. Ask them to support candidates who are empirically minded, friends of public education and understand what sound economic/tax policies actually consist of. It is critical that Kansans become educated on the issues, so they can inoculate themselves from the ultraconservative tricksters’ spin as they spread their memes of misinformation.

KASB has developed a tool listing candidates, as well as endorsements and recommendations by groups involved in public school issue debates. It is available here:!/vizhome/Candidate_Endorsements/Overview

KNEA’s recommendations for the primary are here:

A list of the 2016 voting records on certain key education items is here:

Voting records with some analysis from Kansas PTA: 

Voting records on a larger set of issues for south central legislators is here:

And the following was shared by Greg Orman: MainStream Coalition, Stand Up Blue Valley, and Women For Kansas have all created voter guides that identify Republicans who won’t blindly follow Governor Brownback or support his failed agenda just because they share a party label. You can view them by clicking on the links below.