Again and again, in Kansas public education it’s protecting the institutions first, students second

Again and again, in Kansas public education it’s protecting the institutions first, students second

Recent actions by a legislative committee and the state’s largest school district are grim reminders of just how much public education in Kansas is all about protecting the institutions that provide the education, not the students.

On one hand there’s the state legislature. The House K-12 Education Budget Committee continues to struggle with putting together a “consensus bill” that will presumably become the state’s new K-12 education finance formula. But one thing is clear in the process of debating and amending HB 2410, known as the Kansas School Equity and Enhancement Act, the focus is clearly institutional-focused, not student-focused. This, despite the fact that the Legislature’s newly hired attorney Jeff King, clearly explained to the committee that the most recent Gannon decisions by the Supreme Court have changed their focus from being inputs-based to being outputs-based. In other words, it’s no longer about the money, it’s about student outcomes. That message appears to be falling on deaf ears as the committee trudges on, mired in what are mostly petty amendments, trying to figure out how to input another $750,000,000 to the system, and taking a “system is the solution” approach borrowed from Ma Bell in the 1970’s with no regard to student outcomes.

On the other hand, and certainly not to be outdone, the Wichita Public Schools (USD 259) school board on May 8 voted to sell a vacant school building, which housed the now defunct Metro-Meridian Alternative High School. Sounds like a good business decision, right? Well, there’s one little catch. The agreement stipulates that the building CANNOT be used for a school that gets any public funding, or one that is funded through a tax credit program aimed at helping some of Kansas’ low income students achieve educational opportunity. Sounds kind of specific, doesn’t it? Why such a stipulation?

It’s simple. They don’t want the competition.

That’s right, they are afraid somebody else might come in and do a better job of educating students. And those aren’t my words, they come from board member AND state Senator Lynn Rogers, who said, “I don’t think we want to use our tax dollars and basically help someone else start a school that would compete against us.” You read it right – “compete against us.”

I’m not exactly sure what Mr. Rogers meant by “our tax dollars,” but keep in mind those tax dollars spent on K-12 education will still go to “help” the private sector – in this case a real estate developer and not a new school. Mr. Rogers clearly has no problem with the underlying logic of selling a district asset for private use, something many districts routinely do with buildings no longer in use, he just doesn’t think anyone outside of USD 259 should be able to actually educate Wichita children.

As if in Kansas, government run schools don’t already have a vice-grip on public education. Apparently Mr. Rogers and the five other board members who voted with him are afraid that another Urban Prep Academy and their 50-some students might rise up and run them out of business…against the nearly 50,000 kids in USD 259. How dare they offer/pursue an alternative educational approach that might actually help them succeed in school! (Urban Prep students receive scholarships through the state’s tax credit scholarship program and thus would be ineligible to be housed in the old Metro-Meridian building.) Talk about David v. Goliath!

The Eagle story also points out that Urban Prep is housed in a once-mothballed building previously purchased from USD 259. Had this rule been implemented the low income students at Urban Prep would be stuck with no choice in their education.

These two cases are complementary examples of how our elected bodies view public education, yet not at all a complimentary statement of how they put the institutions first.

At least I will give Mr. Rogers credit for the clarity of his position, if not for his Machiavellian view of how to protect educational institutions.