Fresh look at schools

08/23/2014 7:09 PM

08/24/2014 12:09 AM

There’s no harm in having fresh eyes and minds consider how to make Kansas public schools more efficient. But what seems like the state’s umpteenth effort to do so should put as high a value on schools being more effective – and on what those who teach in and lead schools have to say about how to better meet those goals.

Skepticism is inevitable given the origins and makeup of the K-12 Student Performance and Efficiency Commission and how fruitless such exercises often prove to be (seemingly including Gov. Sam Brownback’s 2012-13 school efficiency task force).

Language establishing the latest panel was among the lesser offenses of House Bill 2506, the late-night legislation that bundled court-ordered new money and property-tax relief for districts with unvetted ideological policy reforms. “The commission shall study and make recommendations to the Legislature regarding opportunities to make more efficient use of taxpayer money,” the bill said.

If that sounded promising, the first two appointments to the panel sounded like a setup: Kansas Chamber of Commerce president Mike O’Neal and Kansas Policy Institute president Dave Trabert, both viewed as hired guns of anti-spending and anti-union business interests.

But Wichita, which has by far the state’s largest school district, is well-represented. Businessman Sam Williams is chairman, with Wichita East High School principal Ken Thiessen the other appointment by Senate President Susan Wagle, R-Wichita.

And last week’s second commission meeting in Topeka provided some significant insights. Among the messages delivered:

Districts already are collaborating and asking more of even their top bosses. Derby superintendent Craig Wilford, in his role as president of the United School Administrators of Kansas, told the commission that in the 2013-14 school year, three superintendents served more than one district, 62 doubled as the principal in at least one building, and 15 were the principals of every building in their district. He also said more than 75 percent of districts use collaborative purchasing agreements.

Debates about school efficiency must account for the growing diversity and challenges of the student populations, which can drive up the costs of educating them. Kansas City, Kan., school superintendent Cynthia Lane said more than 60 languages are spoken in her district, where more than 85 percent of students live in poverty. “I have students that have never been out of their neighborhood. Literally,” Lane said, the Topeka Capital-Journal reported. Wilford also told the commission: “Kansas is very diverse. We may not know it necessarily by looking at this room, but this room isn’t Kansas.”

Districts are rightly worried about state funding for K-12 drying up along with the tax collections in the wake of the 2012 income tax cuts. “Our classrooms and teachers need not be inequitably saddled with the burden of balancing state budgets,” said Deena Burnett, spokeswoman for the American Federation of Teachers and United Teachers of Wichita, as reported by the Lawrence Journal-World. Wilford called for multiyear funding plans to enable school boards and administrators to plan long term and to encourage innovation and efficiency.

Of course, whatever the commission comes up with in the way of recommendations by Jan. 9 for the Legislature could end up being overshadowed by another panel’s findings: the long-awaited Kansas Supreme Court school-finance ruling on whether funding levels are suitable or unconstitutionally low.

For the editorial board, Rhonda Holman

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