The Wichita school district opens its doors to students next week as a reflection of what urban public education in Kansas should be about.
Teachers are a couple steps from having a raise of nearly 4 percent for a second straight year. Programs and initiatives are in place to address challenges with at-risk students, students with poor behavior and those who are behind in schoolwork.
As importantly, there is a feeling within the district — leaders, teachers, parents — that Wichita schools are now set up to be successful instead of being set up for failure.
State funding, and using it properly, are the differences.
For too many years, the district was constrained by reduced state spending on public-school children. School systems across Kansas tightened belts to the point of being unable to breathe.
The alternatives to sufficient funding, even in the best light, were harmful. A shorter school calendar created in-year brain drains at Thanksgiving and Christmas while setting elementary dismissal times at 4:40 p.m. Higher health-care deductibles for employees. Elimination of many bus routes that are labeled hazardous. Threats to eliminate elementary school librarians and outsource custodial services.
One board member at the time called the budgeting process “gut-wrenching.”
Now, with lawmakers approving more than $500 million in additional K-12 spending statewide over five years, the money being fed to districts can make a difference.
In Wichita, those signs are obvious. Many things district leaders think are crucial to the success of more of its students wouldn’t be possible without the increase in state aid. In all, $18 million more than last year’s budget is earmarked for classrooms and employees.
▪ A $5.8 million reading curriculum begins this fall with the goal of helping more students — including those reading above grade level, children with learning disabilities, and students learning English. Plus cursive writing lessons, which will please many parents.
▪ A $1 million program puts teams of clinical therapists, social workers and case managers at 22 schools, helping students and families with mental health concerns.
▪ Further work on student responsibility and making good decisions expands to middle schools after beginning last year in elementaries.
▪ A credit-recovery program, where students can swap an elective class for one that gets them back on track to graduation, opens in all seven comprehensive high schools.
▪ Bryant Elementary, on West Ninth Street, reopens as an “opportunity academy” focusing on K-6 students requiring a more-structured environment. The school will have more counselors and social workers than a standard elementary.
▪ Special-education funding increases from $115 million to $122 million this year.
▪ And, thankfully, the 7 1/2-hour school day ends after two years and $6 million in savings. Fifteen more days return to the school calendar, but 30 minutes are back off the daily clock. The savings were necessary but also a pain that’s no longer needed.
Also, teachers and other employees will receive a 3.65 percent raise under a tentative contract agreement between their union and the district. It’s the second straight year for a pay increase of nearly 4 percent after years of no raises or one-time bonuses that didn’t affect longevity tracks.
The Board of Education has rightly said that teacher pay is a priority as it attempts to retain its educators and show an investment in its personnel during a period of teacher shortages. The district has 500 new teachers beginning next week.
Even with all those improvements, Wichita property owners will likely see a modest reduction in the taxes they pay to the district.
State funding, amazingly, still isn’t to the levels of 10 years ago and reinforces the damage that the late 2000s recession and Brownback-era tax cuts of 2013 and 2014 had on public education. In 2008, base state funding for Wichita was $4,492 per student, or $327 more than this year. Multiplied by 50,000 students, that’s still a $16.4 million shortfall.
But money can only help fight a district’s biggest challenges, not eliminate them.
Wichita’s graduation rate in 2017 was 73.9 percent, below the state average of 86.9 percent but an improvement over 63.1 percent in 2009. The district has identified graduation rates — an easily identifiable marker of achievement — as one of its top priorities.
The Board of Education also faces a possible uprising this fall from parents upset with a decision to put fences around 42 elementary school playgrounds. No decision has been made on whether playgrounds will be locked after school hours or on weekends.. It’s a decision we hope the board makes after thorough public discussion.
Still, Wichita’s school district is in a strong position for success as students return to classes. Second-year superintendent Alicia Thompson made positive changes in her first year, and with continued state support through proper funding, the city’s public school system is in a good place. The “Dream. Believe. Achieve.” slogan for this year is appropriate.