Latest Governor’s Education Council will do nothing to help prepare Kansas students and boost the state’s economy

The governor of Kansas has virtually no role in public education in the state. The only mention of the governor in the state constitution is the authority to appoint members of the state board of regents.  There is no mention of the governor in K-12 education. So why do Kansas governors keep creating committees to address the shortcomings of the state’s public education system?

Last spring, Governor Colyer, through executive order, established a committee (council) that is to address inadequacies in the Kansas education system. Colyer’s Governor’s Education Council has been tasked with tackling the issue of better preparing students for careers after their education. Its purpose, according to the governor, is to answer the question: “How do we improve the career options of kids in Kansas (and) that (their) future is right here in Kansas?”

This is the third such governor’s council/commission in the past decade. Governor Sebelius created the P-20 Education Council  in 2008 as an attempt to create a seamless education system from pre-school (P) throughout post-graduate college (20). Her successor, Governor Parkinson, created the self-explanatory Kansas Commission on Graduation and Dropout Prevention and Recovery in 2011. What was the impact of the P-20 Education Council on student success? Nothing. Governor Parkinson’s commission? The same. And there’s no reason to think this edition will be any different.

In fact, the committee’s make-up effectively guarantees it will be little more than a generator of press releases. Its 34-member composition virtually assures no recommendations for fundamental change will be made. The primary ingredient of the council is education heavyweights  blended with a dash of legislators. Spice that mixture with a pinch of private sector interests, throw in a surprise ingredient – a smidgen of college and high school students – and you have the recipe for the latest group to give lip service to an issue that demands serious attention. Former Education Commissioner Diane DeBacker is the executive director the group. Blake Flanders, president and CEO of the Kansas Board of Regents and Randy Watson, current Education Commissioner are the co-chairs. Say no more.

The committee convened its fourth quarterly meeting last week. So far, their accomplishments include dividing into subcommittees and adopting this vision statement:

The vision of the Governor’s Education Council is an innovative education system that prepares students for the careers of the future and contributes to the economic growth and success of Kansas.

Shouldn’t that be the vision of all 286 school districts and the state board of education? It took those people to come up with that?

Let’s cut to the chase. Here’s what the latest iteration of Governors’ commissions will likely contain when it finishes its meetings, discussions, reports, drafts…and ultimately provides a report to the new governor:

->First and foremost, the commission will find that Kansas has an exceptional education system.

->Lots of data will be included to support this finding, all of which is already readily available.

->Better data systems are imperative to track students after high school.

->The need for more and stronger partnerships with local business is necessary.

->Those in the education establishment will make sure there is a reference to funding levels – that is improving student outcomes is dependent on an appropriate level of “investment” in education.

->A push for universal pre-K. The education establishment will not pass up a golden opportunity to advocate for getting kids into the system a year earlier.

->More effort and attention is required on the so-called “soft skills” like teamwork, interpersonal skills, and communication. (Soft skills are currently in education vogue because they require more inputs – money – while allowing schools to escape accountability because those skills cannot be effectively measured.)

->A clear statement that the committee needs to continue its fine work to see these findings through.

What the report most certainly will not include:

->The systemic problem that keeps students from experiencing more success because districts will not change how they do business.

->Schools need to be more student-focused and less institution-focused.

->More school choice for students so they can pick their best path moving forward after high school.

->That districts spend more efficiently and effectively, making more dollars available to focus on student success.

->More emphasis on basic skills like reading, math and problem solving– especially at the elementary level.

One can easily understand how a governor views the Kansas education system and gets frustrated that it is spending an almost unfathomable amount of taxpayer dollars and still not doing an acceptable job of preparing young Kansans for life after high school. Governor Sebelius saw it a decade ago, as did Governor Parkinson.

A student member of the council makes a case in point. Topeka West High School senior Alexis Gaudreau was featured in a recent Topeka Capital-Journal article that was reporting on the council. Alexis, who strives to ultimately attend medical school, noted how much emphasis is put on ACT scores compared to grade point average when it comes to getting college scholarships, which means colleges and universities must see a lack of correlation between high school letter grades and college performance. If that is true, what does that say about the scholastic rigor at the high school level? Let’s hope Blake Flanders and Randy Watson take note of this.

An even more fundamental question that eclipses the need for such a council is this: if a governor recognizes the issue and wants to do something to tackle it – absent the legal authority to enact any recommendations – why hasn’t the state board of education done something to address the problem? Why don’t they seem to be paying attention? After all, the state board is the duly elected body constitutionally charged with the general supervision of education in the state.

Committee Executive Director DeBacker said this about the committee’s charge: “How do we look at education in the state of Kansas and make sure that what we’re doing in our schools is actually helping our workforce, helping our economy and helping the state of Kansas?”  DeBacker was Education Commissioner from 2010 to 2014. Why didn’t she raise that question back then, when she was in a position to do something about it?

In the end, there will have been lots of meetings, lots of “good work” done by the members and lots of recommendations in an impressive-looking report presented to Governor Kelly. And once again it won’t make a dime’s worth of difference to the students and the economy of Kansas.