Budget & Finance

Literary License

By Robert C. Johnston — May 17, 2005 2 min read

Kurt Vonnegut’s short story “Harrison Bergeron” takes place in 2081 in a world where the government makes sure everyone is equal: For example, people who are really smart or beautiful are given “handicaps,” such as distracting radios that must be worn in their ears or grotesque masks that cover attractive faces.

In a brief filed this month in the Kansas school finance case on behalf of students in the 29,000-student Shawnee Mission district, lawyer Tristan L. Duncan argues that state officials want to apply similar handicaps to local schools by restricting how much they can raise in taxes through what is called the local-option budget, or LOB. And she specifically cites Mr. Vonnegut’s 1961 story and its version of equality in the opening of her brief.

“This equality eventually leads to the destruction of individual liberty, happiness, and finally, life itself,” she writes. “Like the distracting mental radios, the cap on the LOB similarly has the effect of limiting the pursuit of educational excellence.”

Though the proposed school aid plan under review by the state supreme court lets local districts raise taxes, it also imposes caps. Meanwhile, a brief filed on behalf of the state board of education seeks to throw out the local tax provisions in the plan because they allow property-rich districts to raise more money than property-poor ones.

“I took the position that any limit on a community’s ability to raise funds for an adequate education are unconstitutional,” said Ms. Duncan, a lawyer with the firm of Stinson Morrison Hecker in Kansas City, Kan., and a parent of two children in the Shawnee Mission schools.

Mr. Vonnegut, 82, initially told a reporter for the Lawrence Journal-World newspaper in Kansas that Ms. Duncan’s brief misinterpreted his story.

But, after reading her brief, which Ms. Duncan sent him, Mr. Vonnegut changed his mind, saying in a May 12 letter to the Journal-World that the reporter who contacted him failed to fully explain the case. “My story mocks the idea of legally eliminating envy by outlawing excellence, which is precisely what the legislature means to do in the in the public schools, by putting a cap on local spending on them.”

Had he disagreed, Ms. Duncan also had challenged him to a debate “on the proper role of equality and liberty in public education.”

Meanwhile, the Kansas Supreme Court heard oral arguments in the finance case May 11. In January, the court ruled that the aid system was unconstitutional, and it gave the legislature until April to come up with a new plan. (“Kansas Court Orders School Finance Fix,” Jan. 12, 2005.)

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