Archive for Thursday, June 29, 2006

Public education at crossroad, local board advocate says

June 29, 2006

Americans need to adequately fund school improvements or drop demands schools continue to do more with the same resources, an official with the Kansas State School Board Association said Monday at a presentation at De Soto High School.

Mark Tallman, director of advocacy for the Kansas State School Board Association, gave about 16 candidates for the Kansas House and Kansas State School Board a primer in state education funding from the point of view of local school boards.

In an hour-long presentation titled "What Every Candidate Should Know About Public Education," Tallman made the case for local control and additional funding to reach the at-risk students as directed by recent state and federal mandates.

Kansas public schools give an excellent return for the money invested in K-through-12 education, Tallman said. To back up that assertion, he cited the state's standing in the top-10 in all academic measures, including SAT and ACT scores.

State schools achieve those results despite funding that is $500-per-student less than the national average, Tallman said.

One of the reasons for the state's high rank is the exceptional authority the Kansas Constitution places in local school boards, Tallman said. That system fostered a "bottom up" approach that allowed local communities to solve unique problems rather than trying to resolve them with inflexible "top down" dictates, he said.

Local control important

That tradition of local control is being challenged as the Kansas State School Board has challenged the authority of local boards on a number of issues, Tallman maintained.

Tallman gave his remarks a week after the Kansas Supreme Court heard arguments on the 2006 Kansas Legislature's attempt to satisfy a Court ruling of a year ago mandating lawmakers provide state schools more money.

The crux of the 2005 Court decision finding district's weren't getting enough money was language in the Kansas Constitution stating it was the Legislature's duty to adequately fund and improve the state's schools, Tallman said. The Court used Legislature-sponsored studies to provide a measure of how much was required to improve schools.

The Court order spurred the Legislature to pass a K-12 spending package in June 2005 that increased funding by $290 million for the 2005-2006 school year as a down payment on complying with its order to increase educational funding.

The Legislature returned to Topeka in January to a report from its own Post Audit branch suggesting it needed to increase funding by $400 million this year. Before the end of its annual session last month, the Legislature passed a $466 million increase to be spread over the next three years with the first-year increase of $194.5 million.

Those funding battles took place in an environment in which districts were asked to do more and to demonstrate improvement, Tallman said. That process started with the state's QPA program, which required districts to adopt school improvement plans and to demonstrate progress on state assessment tests to receive accreditation and continued with the federal No Child Left Behind Act, which ties continued federal funding to schools demonstrating yearly progress in math and reading proficiency.

The situation only gets worse, Tallman said. NCLB will cut off federal funding in 2014 to those states in which all students, regardless of background or special needs, aren't proficient in the two subjects, Tallman said. In Kansas, that amounts to $400 million a year or 10 percent of the state's K-through-12 funding, he said.

A fundamental question before the state and country was whether that talk of improving education was real, Tallman said. If it was to be taken seriously, then it had to be funded. If not, school districts shouldn't be bothered with lofty improvement goals, Tallman said. The bill for school improvement in Kansas, which would allow districts to reach students not performing, was in the Legislative Post Audit report, Tallman said.

Tax burden real

State Rep. Anthony Brown, R-Eudora, who asked the most questions during the presentation, said there were other considerations.

"I don't think it was totally inaccurate," he said of Tallman's presentation. "Obviously, he's slanted toward his lobbying group."

Brown, who represents De Soto, said he disagreed with any suggestion that money was the end answer to better education and, by extension, economic development.

"If that was the case, Kansas City, Mo., would be the most progressive area in a five-state region," he said.

Brown, who voted against the school funding plan passed this spring in the Legislature because of concerns about its tax implications the next two years, said he was concerned about the consequences of tax increases of the kind mentioned in the Post Audit Report.

"There is a significant amount of older people in the district who really feel the crunch," he said. "(They are) older people -- ladies in most cases whose husbands are gone --ho are in danger of losing their homes. I'm not convinced those women are lying to me when I knock on their door."

Tallman's presentation got a better reception from Harry McDonald and Don Weiss. The two career educators, who are running for Kansas State School Board Position 3 now held by John Bacon of Olathe, sat side by side at the meeting.

Despite different party affiliations -- McDonald is a Republican and Weiss a Democrat -- the two said they were united in the need of ousting the conservative Bacon from office.

"If I face Don in the fall, we'll have a very serious campaign on policy," McDonald said.

It wasn't surprising Bacon didn't attend a presentation sponsored by the Kansas State School Board Association, the two men said. Bacon, they maintained, didn't respect local boards and was among those on the state board whom Tallman said wanted to undercut local school boards' authority, they said.

Bacon insists he supports "parental control" over the local boards, McDonald said. But insisted the 10-person state board in Topeka was better at giving parents a voice than local school boards, McDonald maintained.

Bacon supported numerous attempts to override the authority of local boards, Weiss said. They included the state board's attempt to make mandatory in all districts an opt-in policy to sex education health classes, an attempt to get involved in the book lists available at school libraries and a proposal to the Legislature that would have given the state board the right to approve charter schools in districts, even if the charter school had been rejected by local school boards, Weiss said.

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