Hold on to your wallets! The Kansas Legislature is in session, and politicians on both sides of the aisle are lining up to tighten their grip on your pocketbooks.
Democrats and Republicans alike are offering plans to bolster school funding in the future. No one is offering proposals that would actually do what all Kansans expect their hard-earned dollars to provide — schools where an overwhelming majority of students perform at grade level and beyond.
A Democratic school funding plan would sink an additional $45 million into Kansas schools in 2012-2013, followed by another injection of $45 million in 2014. Gov. Sam Brownback’s school funding proposal would pad Kansas’ school budgets with an additional $24 million this fiscal year and $21 million more next year.
School districts are balking at both plans, worrying that each stops the spigot short of flooding school budgets with cash. Sometimes it appears the only thing that would make school administrators happy is a blank check.
School officials quickly complained that the governor’s plan creates a basement in funding at the current rate of $3,780 per pupil — a sum they say is too low. Johnson County administrators don’t like the Democrats’ plan because it continues to limit the amount of taxes local districts can raise, and for wealthy districts like Blue Valley or Shawnee Mission, the sky is the limit.
Taxpayers should have their own complaint: As school funding has grown, reading and math proficiency remains largely stagnant.
Recent lawsuits over school funding have a created a school “weather system” in which it’s raining cash in public education, but our children aren’t getting any smarter or any more competitive nationwide or internationally. According to Kansas Department of Education numbers, revenue per pupil has increased more than 26 percent since 2005.
Meanwhile, only 63 percent of Kansas fourth-graders can read and comprehend at grade level. Only 64 percent of eighth-graders read at grade level, and embarrassingly, barely more than half of Kansas 11th-graders — 55 percent — can do the same. The numbers look better in Johnson County, with more than 71 percent of fourth-graders proficiently reading. The average increases to 78 percent by eighth-grade, but only 67 percent of Johnson County 11th-graders read and comprehend at grade level.
By the way, statewide, our math skills are much worse, and our local averages aren’t a whole lot better. If money doesn’t buy happiness, it also doesn’t buy the ability to read and comprehend at grade level.
Legislators are arguing over how much money to take from taxpayers and how much to cycle through Topeka on a roundtrip back to local schools. Instead they should be debating policies that would actually improve reading and math scores — or sending the power back to parents.
Other states are tinkering with solutions that show great promise. After a decade of allowing some school choice options, math and reading scores of Florida students are skyrocketing. According to The Washington Times, Florida fourth-graders’ reading scores increased by 9 percentage points in the last decade, doubling the average national gain.
Minority students’ scores are gaining even faster. It’s disappointing that an obvious cure for what ails Kansas’ education system — school choice — is receiving very little lip service from legislators and even less from our governor. Kansas taxpayers should expect more for their educational dollars, and voters should expect solutions that don’t just throw money at the problem.
Instead of expensive schools, wouldn’t children learn just as well in older schools? When education officials are decrying too little funding, shouldn’t the cost of our actual school buildings be included in the discussion?
My grandfather was schooled only through eighth grade. He read well above that grade level and he learned in a one-room school with one teacher and no support staff.
What we spend as a state should be largely dependent on what we can afford, and it’s somewhere between the extravagant schools we have today and those that educated my grandparents. Legislators should be working to find that balance instead of bending to maintain the status quo of ever-growing funding.
Whatever happens in the Kansas Legislature this session, it appears that when it comes to school funding, no taxpayers’ wallets will be left behind.