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Eagle editorial: Poverty affecting schools

  • Published Sunday, March 30, 2014, at 12 a.m.

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The “Road Map for Kansas” that Sam Brownback drafted as a candidate for governor in 2010 set a goal of reducing the number of children living in poverty while boosting reading scores and other achievement. As the Legislature works toward a school-funding fix, it’s sobering to realize how much the deepening need among the state’s families is affecting the state’s schools.

Wichitans are well-aware of this reality, given how many of the 50,000 students in USD 259 qualify for free- or reduced-price lunches – 78 percent this school year, up from 74 percent when Brownback took office and 64 percent a decade ago. District officials count 2,166 homeless schoolchildren. And the Kansas Food Bank provides weekly backpacks of food to about 1,300 Wichita children, among the 7,000 it helps in 86 Kansas counties.

Wichita’s John Allison was among six school superintendents who spoke at a recent joint meeting of the House and Senate education committees and highlighted the special socioeconomic challenges in their districts, as reported by the Kansas Health Institute News Service. One example, Allison said, is how some families move multiple times during a school year to find affordable housing, forcing their kids to switch schools.

“When we see a free-month-rent promotion” at some apartment complex, Allison told legislators, “we know we’re going to see changes, because the parents are at that point financially.” He also noted that the district has worked with GraceMed to bring health services to underserved students in Wichita, describing how per capita income has declined from $30,226 in 2003 to $24,461 in 2012.

But poverty intersects with K-12 public education all over the state. The state’s report to the federal government counted 9,330 homeless students in Kansas last school year – a 161 percent increase from 2006-07 and a total that includes families doubling up or living in motels as well as those “unsheltered,” according to KHI News Service.

Garden City’s Rick Atha told lawmakers about receiving complaints about snow days, with parents calling on him to hold classes “because they know their kids would get breakfast and lunch.”

Topeka’s Julie Ford talked about homelessness and mental illness among families. Her district uses federal dollars to help homeless kids with school supplies, eyeglasses and shoes, according to KHI News Service.

Even Jim Hinson, superintendent of the Shawnee Mission district in comparatively affluent Johnson County, said “we have school nurses who are the primary health care providers” for children. And “I can’t hire enough social workers” because of “what’s going on or not going on in homes,” he said, adding “one of our kindergarteners watched her mother commit suicide in front of her.”

Atha stressed the importance of at-risk funding, which is based on family income, to addressing the special problems of poor students. “If in the future this funding were to be cut or eliminated, it would prove to be catastrophic,” he said, according to the Topeka Capital-Journal.

Kansans can hope such reports from the front lines of K-12 schools are instructive for GOP state lawmakers, many of whom are inexplicably seeking to equalize school district funding by cutting it.

For the editorial board, Rhonda Holman

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