Northeast Johnson County legislators left off Senate, House Education Committees for 2015

Rep. Melissa Rooker, who defeated Jennifer Robinson (seated) to win her second term in office this November, made a name for herself as a staunch defender of public schools during her first two years in office.
Rep. Melissa Rooker, who defeated Jennifer Robinson (seated) to win her second term in office this November, made a name for herself as a staunch defender of public schools during her first two years in office.

When the Kansas Senate and House Education Committees convene for the first time of the new session next month, they will do so without a Republican representative from northeast Johnson County — a fact that has local public education advocates worried.

Senate President Susan Wagle and House Speaker Ray Merrick this week unveiled committee assignments for the 2015 session, and both Sen. Kay Wolf and Rep. Melissa Rooker were excluded from the Education Committees on which they had served the past two years.

Wolf said Tuesday that she had played a part in the Senate committee decision, having spoken with Wagle about her preferences. Wolf said Wagle asked her if she would prefer to serve on the Federal and State Committee instead of Education, and she agreed to do so in part because she didn’t believe much significant policy making would take place in the Senate Education Committee.

“I believe any policy or financial decisions will not be made in the Education Committee on the Senate side,” Wolf said. “Very little policy or decision making was given to the Education committee.”

But Rooker made clear that serving on the Education Committee was her “first choice” and that she had communicated as much to the House leadership. She categorized the Education committee assignments — which include a number of ideologically conservative members — as “a very clear message about the direction House leadership wants to take public education.”

“The clear message here is that the big picture we have is a reform agenda that is intended to take us closer to the privatization of public schools,” Rooker said. “This will all be done in the name of efficiency, and ‘living within our means,’ but the fact is we’ve created this crisis ourselves. All of Johnson County should be concerned about what is about to unfold.”

Game On for Kansas Schools head and Shawnee Mission School District parent Judith Deedy said Tuesday that the absence of a representative from northeast Johnson County was unsettling.

“For a long time, we’ve had a moderate voice on that committee, and that seems to be gone,” she said.

Deedy said that Rooker’s deep knowledge of the issues should have been seen as an asset to the House Education Committee. Instead, it seemed to work against her.

“They have taken the strongest advocate for Johnson County schools and Kansas school children off the education committee,” Deedy said. “Her years of work with the Kansas PTA provided her with a depth of knowledge that most legislators don’t have. That knowledge should be valued on the House Education Committee, and the fact that it isn’t has public education advocates quite concerned.”

In the messages announcing the committee assignments to members, Merrick said that he “made these assignments using factors that included, but did not prioritize seniority. My criteria centered on the circumstances of the state, and who is best qualified and prepared to work within them.”

Rooker said that, while she won’t be serving on the committee, she’ll be keeping a close eye on the policies before that body and will remain an outspoken advocate for schools.

“This doesn’t silence me,” she said. “My role and opportunity will just come on the House floor.”

Rooker this session will serve on the Vision 2020 Committee, the Children and Seniors Committee, and the Transportation and Public Safety Budget Committee.

Wolf will chair the Joint Committee on State Building Construction, vice-chair the Transportation Committee, and serve on the Federal and State Affairs Committee; Local Government Committee; and Ethics and Elections Committee.

Though Rooker and Wolf won’t be serving on the larger Education committees in the House and Senate, District 21 Rep. Barbara Bollier will be serving on the House Education Budget committee.