Why is this a surprise?
by KNEA President, Karen Godfrey
The public school attack dogs are at it again. This time they are pointing to two reports on student assessment results and ramping up their tirades against public schools in Kansas. It is alarming, they want us to believe, that ACT scores are flat and state assessment scores have declined for the first time since 2001 when No Child Left Behind began.
But is it really shocking that we seem to have run into some trouble? We are reminded of TV’s Gomer Pyle who used to point out the obvious and then shout, “Surprise, surprise, surprise!” as if we didn’t know what was coming.
For most of Kansas’ 150 year history, our public schools have been admired, promoted, and in continuous improvement. While the funding formula has changed over the years, it generally has been improved. We have held high standards for getting a teaching license and sought to keep pace with inflation when it came to funding. We were not always successful with that funding part and twice lawsuits have put funding back on the right path, the last time in 2005-06.
In 2006 following the decision in the Montoy school finance lawsuit, our legislature increased funding over three years to almost the level that their own cost studies said was needed. By 2008, we were back on track. The Legislative Post Audit Division studied the impact of the new funding and found a nearly one to one correspondence between funding increases and student achievement.
Then came the economic bust. That bust was felt in Kansas as it was in most states and declining tax revenue meant declining school funding. The last cut — the largest ever in Kansas school funding history — was recommended by Governor Sam Brownback in 2011. By then we had lost more than 10 years of funding increases and, when adjusted for inflation, funding was reduced to the 1992 level.
The result of these funding cuts was the elimination of paraprofessionals and support staff, administrators, and classroom teachers. Supply budgets dried up, textbook purchases were put on hold, and in some cases schools were closed and consolidated. We’ve even heard stories of schools where half the light bulbs were removed, tutoring activities dropped, and summer school cancelled.
At the same time, the economic crisis put enormous stresses on our communities and families as many workers lost their jobs. Today, 48.9% of Kansas students qualify for free or reduced lunch. Nearly one of every two Kansas students lives in poverty today! The supports we worked so hard to provide for the needs of poor and minority students, students learning English, and students with special needs have been challenged, reduced, and in some cases, even eliminated.
So it should really come as no surprise that these stresses are beginning to take their toll.
Now let’s not be too despondent. We don’t like what’s happening, but it was predicted. And despite these reports, our assessment results still outshine most of the nation. But the point is, we can now see the cracks in the dam and they are beginning to leak. Kansas cannot afford to allow our schools and our school funding system to continue on the current path.
The economy is in recovery and yet legislators and the Governor have used the recovery to shower tax breaks on corporations and the wealthy instead of restoring the cuts made to essential services like schools and the social service safety net. If we want to repair those cracks and get back on the path to excellence and continuous improvement, our priorities need to change
It’s time to recommit to the children of Kansas; to restore funding lost to the economic downturn, and repair those cracks in that dam.
Recommit, restore, and repair — it’s really a pretty simple formula.