The people behind the policies

This was a busy week.

I began it with a trip to Topeka on Monday, where I visited with House minority leader Jim Ward. Later I spent more time with the folks at Legislative Administrative Services — who, once again, took the time to help me out and show me around the capitol. I moved on to meet with Legislative Research and the Revisors office. The people there were likewise gracious in helping me understand some of the work I’ll be doing in the next legislative session.

The next day I met with a friend who has considerable experience helping with political campaigns. Her insights have been priceless. Back home, I met with a lot more people, and discussed a number of different ideas. All of them have been very beneficial to me. But there was one conversation that has stuck in my mind.

On Friday, I met with Darla Fisher, the principal of Lincoln Elementary School. We talked a lot about the unique challenges some of her students face in life, as well as some of the difficulties those challenges present for teachers in the classroom.

I left that meeting realizing how little I really know. I’ve always felt like I have an understanding of what it’s like to live in poverty, to struggle to pay the bills and all the additional trouble that comes along with not having enough. But it’s been a minute since I’ve been there, and even then, I didn’t face the same problems that others face.

There are children in our community who don’t have food in their homes. There are children who have been the victims of sexual abuse. There are children whose parents have run ins with the law. There are children who don’t have adequate heat in their homes. And there are children who are, at far too young an age, the primary caregivers for their younger siblings.

And all of these kids are coming to school, trying to get an education. But how much wil they be able to retain when they’ve been up the night before caring for a younger brother, worried about his or her parents, or struggling to stay warm? That kid is going to have a hard time learning anything. And that means teachers are given the difficult task of figuring out what is going on in these kids’ lives and trying to find a way to first help them deal with the chaos in their lives, and then, hopefully, teach them a thing or two.

This all set me to thinking about the way we talk about policy and make decisions.

I’ve heard the talk before about some of these challenges in education. But I’d not heard it explained in quite the way that Darla explained it to me — and I’m thankful for that because I feel I have a much better insight on it. But I’m not sure how much of this makes its way into the policy discussions surrounding education. I hear a lot of talk about money and whether we’re spending enough. I hear a lot of talk about “choice” and whether the overall general education of children might be better handled through routing children to private schools or some other format for education. I hear a lot of talk about whether we should help or punish people who don’t make enough money to pay thier bills. (We of course use nicer language in saying this, but it’s what’s being said).

But I don’t hear a lot of talk about the sort of things Darla told me.

There’s an attitude that exists in which politics is treated as a sport. It’s this team vs that team, and the focus is on which team will win. But the loser in such a scenario is the people behind that fighting and posturing — people like the students at Lincoln. Because behind every policy there are people. They are the only real reason to create or discuss policy at all. If we’re not trying to creat policy that solves problems for people, then I think we’re doing something wrong.

In the case of Lincoln, there are a lot of good people doing a lot of good work. They are investing in these children, and doing what they can to offer safety, stability and a path to a good future. That’s critically important, because regardless of what position one takes on any of these policy issues, there will still be these children, who will one day grow into adults. They will be the people we’ll ask to perform the work we need done, built the economy we want, lead our institutions and raise the next generation of children. How that’s carried out, in part, is determined by our willingness to recognize and finance a need in an effort to set the future on a different, ideally better, trajectory.

When the topic of education comes up in the legislature, I’ll remember the things Darla told me, and the work they’re doing in Hutchinson, and I hope that we’ll begin any discussion in the spirit of trying to solve a problem, rather than attempting to win at some sort of game.


Originally published at jasonprobst.com on July 29, 2017.