School issues update

NEIGHBORS:

It’s been a busy month for me with State Board activities. I enjoyed visiting the Jeff West and Wabaunsee district school boards. Also had a good discussion with the Santa Fe Trail administrators. Everyone is working hard to help students succeed and trying new ideas that work. Here is an update on recent State Board of Ed activities.

SCHOOL FUNDING UPDATE

The Kansas Supreme Court heard oral arguments on the Gannon school funding lawsuit on July 18. No big surprises. Both sides seem to have concluded that money matters in school funding. The question is how much and from what source. The Court is considering both equity (do taxpayers have a level burden across the state) and adequacy (is there enough money for students to meet standards).

The plaintiffs contend that SB 19, the legislature’s new school funding plan, is unconstitutional. They pointed to several areas of inequality, like an over-dependence on property taxes to fund schools. They said that puts low-property-value districts at a disadvantage. In a school budget training session, I learned that the average property value in Kansas school districts varies from a low of about $33,000 to a high of just under $400,000. Requiring districts to fund more of the cost of education by property taxes is inherently dis-equalizing. The plaintiffs also said that the amount of funding increase proposed by the state was insufficient and didn’t even replace what had been lost to inflation the last few years.

The State contends that the new funding formula is constitutional and should be tried for a few years to see if children are successful on that amount of money. The State said that they had developed a Successful Schools Model to determine how much money should be spent. Legislators took some measures like state test scores, graduation rates, and poverty rates and calculated there were 41 schools exceeding expectations (i.e., Successful Schools). State Attorney Jeff King said that the formula had been developed with the help of the Ks. Department of Education. That was not correct. KSDE was not consulted on the calculation. The State also contended that the State Board’s budget request of over $800 million included things not necessary to meet basic standards. The Board said that was not true, and that everything in its budget request was foundational to meeting the Rose Standards and federal requirements.

Timing is critical here. While no one knows for sure when the Court will issue a ruling, school budgets are due to the county clerks in August. Without knowing how much they will have it will be hard to set a budget or hire new people to help low-performing schools this year. More to follow!

STATE BOARD UPDATE

At our July State Board of Education meeting we got an update on several of the new measures the Board is taking to focus on the success of each student.

  • We purchased a tool to assess the academic and social/emotional level of incoming kindergartners. This tool largely uses the input of parents and will help kindergarten teachers know more about the areas of strength and weakness of these youngsters. This tool is not about keeping kids out of kindergarten, but about helping teachers reach each student at their level Districts will be provided this tool at no cost.
  • We got an update on our measurement of post-secondary success. We know that we need about 71% of our workforce to have some kind of post-secondary training – either a certificate or two- or four-year degree. We can now tell with fairly good accuracy, how many of our high school graduates are getting training after high school and completing that training (i.e., “succeeding” in post-secondary endeavors). We also know that not every district can meet a 71% success rate because of factors like poverty, absenteeism, mobility, percent of non-English speaking students, and percent of disabled students. Soon this data will be available on the KSDE website for every district.
  • You might be interested to know that students speaking English as a second language is an issue for many districts. Over 68,000 Kansas students have a first language other than English. Most are Spanish-speaking, but we have students speaking dozens of languages from Khmer to French to Russian to Dinka.
  • The Board is asked from time to time to develop training requirements for any number of issues students deal with. Suicide and childhood sexual abuse are two that have recently been raised. To that end, the Board is forming a Mental Health Advisory Council to address the unmet needs in this area.

TRANSITION TO COLLEGE ALGEBRA PILOT

Most Kansas colleges require students to pass College Algebra to graduate. It is a tough course, using math above what many students achieve in high school. It can be a roadblock for students not adept at math. And, frankly, I’m not sure many graduates outside of technical fields use it.

But it is a requirement. The State Board implemented a trial program called Transition to College Algebra last year to help high school seniors assess and address the gaps in their math knowledge. The trial has been a huge success. The class uses methods that are engaging and successful. We are watching to see if students taking the course are successful in College Algebra as well.

We are also talking to the Board of Regents about the College Algebra requirement. In Missouri, they are now going to require a math course more relevant to a college student’s major: College Algebra for students in technical fields and courses like statistics or math reasoning for others. Makes sense to me!