Annual PDK survey of public attitudes on education underscore Kansas issues

Annual PDK survey of public attitudes on education underscore Kansas issues

The 51st annual PDK Poll of the Public’s Attitudes Towards the Public Schools was released this week. While the results are drawn from national surveys and may not reflect Kansas sentiments, the survey offers a guide to possible attitudes on current topics in Kansas.

Here are some of the highlights of the report.

  • Teachers feel underpaid, undervalued, frustrated with the profession and half have considered leaving it. Over half say they would consider going on strike. Big majorities of all adults say they would support teachers striking for higher pay or to have a greater voice in academic policies.

Kansas: Perhaps the most common concern of school leaders is the struggle to find quality teachers. Adjusted for inflation, the average Kansas teacher salary in 2018 ($50,403) is essentially unchanged since 1970 ($50,000). That is true of some other jobs but pay in most other professions requiring a college degree has increased more than inflation. Kansas teachers have also fallen behind other states, ranking 34th in 1970, rising to 28th in 1990, dropping to 40th in 2017 but rising to 38th in 2018 when the Legislature began increasing K-12 funding in response to the Gannon school finance case.

In 2017, Kansas teacher salaries were below Colorado ($52,398), Iowa ($56,790) and Nebraska ($53,473), but higher than Missouri ($49,208) and Oklahoma ($45,292). The Oklahoma number does not include raises after a teacher strike. Teacher strikes are illegal in Kansas.

Kansas salaries are low for two reasons: Kansas total funding per pupil has dropped to 30th in the nation, and Kansas has a low pupil-teacher ratio (only 12 states are lower), so fewer dollars are divided among more teachers.

  • The public isn’t very interested in state test scores. Less than 25 percent of all adults and K-12 parents say the percentage of students who pass a test is the best way to measure school performance, compared to 75 percent or more who say students’ improvement over time is the best measure. Only 21 percent of parents say they assess quality based on their child’s state standardized test scores and 23 percent use state report cards on local schools, compared to 39 percent who look at their child’s report card grades and 15 percent who use evaluations from other parents.

Kansas: Information on state assessments is required by the federal Every Student Succeeds Act and must be included in a “report card” for each school. This information is posted on the Kansas State Department of Education website. The school finance bill passed this session added a new requirement for a one-page report based on ESSA data, to be placed on each district’s website.

Following public meetings, input from employers and surveys, the Kansas State Board of Education based its Kansans Can outcomes on a broader set of outcomes: kindergarten readiness, graduation, postsecondary success, individual plans of study and social and emotional measures locally.

  • Over 60 percent of parents think Bible studies should be an elective in their schools, with 7 percent saying these studies should be required and 32 percent saying they should not be offered. A slightly higher percentage supports offering, but not requiring, comparative religion courses. Large majorities of all adults, parents and teachers believe civics class should be required.

Kansas: Bible studies and comparative religion courses can be offered if approved by local school boards, and one year of government is a state requirement for Kansas high school graduation. In many cases, decisions about offering electives or requirements is based on availability of teachers and student interest when competing with courses already required for graduation or college.

The State Board of Education is promoting civic education as part of the Kansans Can vision.

  • Majorities of parents and all adults think academics should be the main focus of public education, and just 20 percent of parents, teachers and all adults say preparing students for work should be the main goal. However, over 75 percent of each group say that schools should prepare students both academically and for jobs.

Kansas: These responses may not clearly distinguish between preparing students for work through specific job training, such as career and technical education, or preparing student academically for postsecondary education that will lead to employment. Research indicates over 70 percent of Kansas jobs in the future will require a credential beyond a high school diploma. About half of those will require a four-year degree or more and half will require a technical certificate or two-year degree.

Currently, about half of Kansas students in a graduating class will have completed a postsecondary certificate or degree or be enrolled in a postsecondary program after two years.

  • Sixty percent of adults and 75 percent of teachers say their community schools are underfunded, and for the 18th straight year, inadequate financial support is listed as the biggest problem facing public schools. Majorities says they would support candidates who want to increase public school funding. But most adults, parents and teachers would rather see cuts in other government programs than raise taxes – although majorities would also support using lottery revenues, legalized marijuana and sports gambling to raise money for schools.

Kansas: In 2016, the Kansas Supreme Court ruled the school system was constitutionally underfunded. After three years of Legislative efforts, the court this summer approved a plan to restore funding to 2009 levels when adjusted for inflation, the last time funding was presumed adequate, by 2023.

Total K-12 funding remains at a lower share of Kansas personal income than most of the past 30 years and K-12 state aid is approximately the same percentage of the state general funding budget it has been since 1994.

  • The public has mixed opinions on discipline. By a 51-45 percent majority, parents say school discipline isn’t strict enough, and over 70 percent of all adults, K-12 parents and public school teachers say they support “zero tolerance” policies on weapons. But less than half of respondents support automatic suspension for a student who accidentally brings a folding knife to school, and by two-to-one or three-to-one margins, see mediation or counseling as more effective than detention or suspension. Large majorities of parents, teachers and all adults say schools should be involved in disciplining students who engage in cyberbullying, which often does not take place at school.

Kansas: Most discipline policies are set by local schools. There is a “zero tolerance” requirement for bringing weapons to school, but superintendents can make exceptions. More districts are investigating alternatives to suspension, such as mediation and “restorative justice” practices, in part to address concerns over bullying and harassment. Under current state law, schools have little authority to address cyberbullying or harassment that takes place outside of school.

  • As has been the case for decades, the public dramatically splits its assessment of public schools, with fewer than 20 percent giving the nation’s school a grade of A or B, and just 44 percent giving those grades to schools in their community, but 76 percent – near an all-time high – give their own children’s schools an A or B.

Kansas: Mathematically, these results indicate a problem of perception. Most respondents are either being “too easy” on their own children’s schools, or “too hard” on everyone else. In fact, it can be some of both. Parents closest to their own schools may see positive results for individual students and supportive programs that national news stories about problems or test scores miss. But it may also indicate that they are also be reluctant to push their own students harder or consider changes in long-standing community traditions.

That is one of the great challenges for the Kansans Can vision: acknowledging the progress public schools have made with educational attainment for all groups at an all-time high, while pushing for improvement to help students who continue to lag on educational measures.