Diversity creates challenge

Like all Kansas school districts, USD 259 is trying to make test scores rise despite declines in state per-pupil funding. But Wichita must do so in ever-more languages, and with a fast-growing Hispanic enrollment. Any school reforms that emanate from Topeka had better account for this deepening diversity and its accompanying higher costs.

As an article by Suzanne Perez Tobias in Monday’s Eagle revealed, the past decade saw huge demographic shifts in the district. The languages spoken by its students now number an astonishing 89, up from 66 a decade ago. The Hispanic enrollment has doubled since the 2000-01 school year to more than 31 percent this year, compared with 36 percent white, 18.5 percent black, 8 percent multiracial and 5 percent Asian. Nearly 8,200 students need English for Speakers of Other Languages services, up from 4,300 a decade ago. In just five years, there could be more Hispanics than whites in district schools.

The school board has to strive for equity and as much integration as possible as it draws new boundaries to account for the new schools within the 2008 bond issue, using magnet programs and other means to keep schools from being ethnically and culturally segregated. The promises to the community that attended the board’s historic 2008 vote to end forced busing still apply.

Meanwhile, the trend of more regular-classroom teachers working toward ESOL endorsement should be welcomed and encouraged.

And if the new funding formula to be rolled out soon by the Brownback administration glosses over Wichita’s unique language and socioeconomic hurdles, it will spell trouble – not just for the district’s budget but for student achievement. It also will add fuel to the ongoing legal challenge to state school funding and invite more lawsuits. As outlined so far by Brownback policy director Landon Fulmer, the governor’s school-funding formula would try to equalize financing between districts with high and low property valuations. But what would it do for districts such as Wichita with high concentrations of students who start school without speaking English and, it often follows, come from low-income families?

Unfortunately, the Wichita district cannot rely on most members of the area legislative delegation to understand its challenging demographics and advocate for its unique interests in the legislative session. In fact, some lawmakers may want Kansas to follow the regrettable lead of Secretary of State Kris Kobach, who co-wrote the Alabama law that requires schools to check students’ immigration status and has set off a panic among immigrants. Kansas doesn’t need such disruptive legislation.

Wichita’s immigrant student population is here and growing. Serving it will be a challenge, but it also will enrich the community and its future workforce.