Archive for Thursday, February 3, 2005

USD 232 calculates ESL costs for study

February 3, 2005

A legislative study last week reported Kansas schools get about 25 percent less funding than educators think they need, and De Soto is crunching numbers before putting in its 2 cents about a more specific funding shortfall -- bilingual education costs.

At the request of the Senate Education Committee, Deputy Education Commissioner Dale Dennis produced a report Thursday that attempted to show the actual cost of education.

Dennis surveyed 55 of the state's 302 school districts -- Blue Valley and Olathe schools were the only districts polled in Johnson County -- to determine their costs for educating a regular student, an at-risk student and a bilingual student.

The study found that districts spend about $5,100 per regular student, including local dollars and other common extras.

School districts, however, reported needing between $5,258 and $13,219 per student, with a median amount of $6,366 per student. Beyond showing larger funding shortcomings, survey results were less certain for at-risk and bilingual students.

De Soto Superintendent Sharon Zoellner said she couldn't say whether survey results were in line with her district's needs because De Soto was still working on its own specific calculations. However, even the median is much higher than the current base state aid per pupil of $3,863, which was certainly too low, Zoellner said.

"We'll have to wait until we get our numbers crunched to determine if that median would be adequate," Zoellner said. "But it's definitely a step in the right direction."

One of De Soto's neighboring districts, Shawnee Mission USD 512, spends $5,273 per regular student and about $5,779 per bilingual student, said Tim Rooney, that district's manager of budget and finance.

But that is not what the Shawnee Mission district considers adequate for a suitable education, Rooney said, it's simply the status quo.

Although also not contacted for the state's survey, another neighboring district, Eudora USD 491, currently spends about $5,000 per student, said Superintendent Marty Kobza. The district still needed to work through specifics before determining how much more was needed to suitably educate its students, he said.

State officials asked some districts not polled among the survey's original 55 for more information about special education costs. As one of those districts, De Soto this week was in the process of pinning down a suggested dollar figure for per-student bilingual education, Zoellner said.

Several factors make it more expensive to educate an English Language Learner, or ELL student, than a typical student, Zoellner said.

"It takes additional staff, it takes additional resources," she said. "For the ELL population, we need things in their language."

One of the largest costs, though, is staff.

Starside Elementary School has its own English as a second language program, but elementary schools in the district's east side, where there are fewer bilingual students, employ a center-based program.

Zoellner said busing east-side students to a common location, Riverview Elementary School, saved the district money. The distance between schools is short, and all students can share the same teachers.

Some Republican legislators criticized last week's cost report, saying it was based on what schools would like to spend on education rather than what they needed.

Eudora Republican Anthony Brown, who represents parts of De Soto, Shawnee Mission, Eudora, Lawrence and Olathe school districts, said meshing needs of districts statewide would be challenging.

He said the Department of Education cost study was informative but that basing a funding plan solely on numbers reported by school districts themselves was risky.

"It doesn't seem like a very good way to keep the reins back on state spending," he said. "I'm glad they got their input in, and we can use it as a barometer. But that probably won't be the determining factor on how education gets funded."

The cost report informs legislators' efforts to amend the state's current school finance formula by April 12, a task recently ordered by the Kansas Supreme Court.

The Court ruled that the legislature was failing in its constitutional duty to provide adequate funds for public schools, in part because of a void in knowledge of actual costs.

"The financing formula was not based upon actual costs to educate children but was instead based on former spending levels and political compromise," the Court's opinion stated. "This failure to do any cost analysis distorted the low enrollment, special education, vocational, bilingual education, and the at-risk student weighting factors."

Brown said educators could expect an increase in funding and that he was confident the legislature would devise a plan before the April deadline.

However, he said an acceptable plan would include some direction as to where funds should go, as well as a shift in how existing money is appropriated. Without that assurance, he said, pitching a tax increase would be a tough sell back home.

"What we're looking for in the statehouse is accountability," Brown said. "We're not just giving school districts a blank check."

-- Scott Rothschild contributed to this story.

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