As lawmakers wrap up this year’s legislative session, they should wrap their heads around the challenges facing school districts and many Kansas families. And how little lawmakers have done to help.
As of midday Monday, educators and social workers had identified 2,251 students attending Wichita public schools this year who were either living on the street, in shelters or with other families. That’s a record, and 518 more than last year.
To put that number in perspective, if these 2,251 students constituted their own district, it would be larger than 248 of the state’s school districts.
These children face many obstacles. They tend to be emotionally unsettled, and many are hungry and lack adequate clothing.
Teachers and school social workers do their best to help, giving the children extra attention and often paying for supplies or eyeglasses.
Students are also pitching in. Some students at Woodman Elementary School formed a “Kindness Club” and sold chewing gum (and the right to chew it in school) to help the homeless children in the district. They raised $121.75 – not much, but every little bit helps.
What have lawmakers done to help?
The Legislature and Gov. Sam Brownback are planning no increase in base state aid to schools next fiscal year, even though a three-judge panel ruled in January that the funding is unconstitutionally low and ordered it increased by at least $440 million.
Meanwhile, the Kansas Department for Children and Families has been tightening rules on receiving state and federal assistance, while the Legislature passed a new law to drug test people who receive welfare or unemployment benefits. Lawmakers and Brownback are also balking at allowing an expansion of Medicaid that would enable more than 150,000 Kansans to get needed insurance.
Some lawmakers will say that the tax cuts approved last year were aimed at growing the economy, which could help more Kansans find jobs and afford a house or apartment.
That would be great, if it works. But so far the tax cuts have mostly created budget problems. And those cuts were partly financed by reducing tax credits – so some low-income families are actually paying more in taxes now than before.
If lawmakers go along with Brownback’s proposal to make permanent the statewide sales tax increase, low-income families will shoulder more of the tax burden.
Vivian Schurig, a fourth-grader at Woodman, said of her school’s fundraising effort: “If something is wrong in our community, it is our job to settle it.”
If only more state lawmakers felt the same.