A constitutional crisis is upon us. The Kansas Supreme Court has threatened to close schools on July 1 if the Legislature fails to equalize funding disparities between school districts.
This is just another chapter in the ongoing saga of school finance battles between the court and Legislature. However, the stakes are much higher this time around, and the uncertainty is impacting more than parents, teachers and schoolchildren. Business leaders are reporting difficulty in recruiting employees and top-level managers because of the negative news coverage.
This must stop now. It’s time for real dialogue and real leadership.
A good number of legislative leaders are working hard toward a resolution that will keep schools open. However, some seem almost singularly focused on criticizing the court.
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Schools, understandably, are working to protect their own self-interests.
The court has a difficult job, but a job to do nonetheless. Like it or not, it is the final authority on the constitutionality of the school finance law. However, threatening to close schools is unwise and counterproductive.
Wealthier school districts and their communities are calling for funding plans with “hold harmless” provisions. Translated, this means they don’t want any money taken from their districts and shared with the state’s poorer districts. Unfortunately, this flies directly counter to the definition of “equalization.”
In Wichita, USD 259 (the state’s largest school district) educates 2,000 homeless schoolchildren per year. Nearly 78 percent of the student body is considered “at risk” and qualifies for free or reduced-price lunches. A sizable number of students consider English as their second language, with students speaking more than 100 different languages as their primary language.
Countless studies have proved that educating students from poorer urban settings costs more than educating students from affluent areas. It is critical that these students are given the same opportunities for success as children in wealthy school districts. Kansas cannot and should not be known as a state where a child’s educational success is decided by his or her ZIP code.
There is plenty of blame to go around. We all need to shoulder our fair share, including the Wichita Metro Chamber of Commerce. We’ve had three years to address this issue, provide leadership and avoid the crisis we now face.
Pointing fingers and playing the blame game doesn’t move us forward. At best, it paralyzes us in the current dilemma. At worst, it actually moves us backward. Let’s at least develop a short-term solution and pledge to continue to work together on a sustainable resolution.
It’s time to separate from our silos, depart from our protected turf and come together in the best interests of our children, our communities and the future of our great state.
Gary Plummer is president and CEO of the Wichita Metro Chamber of Commerce.