By Mark Tallman
Associate executive director of KASB
Public Schools Week 2019 (March 25-29) celebrates our nation’s public schools, our students and the many school professionals who work to help students achieve their greatest potential.
Educating 90 percent of Kansas students, public schools have helped Kansas and the United State reach the highest levels of educational attainment ever, measured by high school and college completion, for all major ethnic groups.
Because higher educational attainment prepares people for higher paying, more secure jobs, these improvements have raised incomes for hundreds of thousands of Kansans, increased yearly earnings by an estimated $7 billion dollars and reduced poverty by nearly 50,000 individuals, compared to 1990.
Public schools have prepared more students for success by changing to meet the needs of those who haven’t been as successful in the past: those in poverty, who have faced past discrimination, with disabilities, with mental and physical health issues, from families who have not experienced higher education.
These responses include special education, at-risk and bilingual programs, all day kindergarten, preschool and parent education programs, breakfast and other nutrition services, expanded transportation for attendance and safety, new technologies, reorganizing classrooms, individualized plans of study, expanding technical education and concurrent enrollment programs, more opportunities for student activities and so much more.
Public schools are dealing with a much different student population than earlier generations: more racial and ethnic diversity, more students in poverty, more students with special needs, especially high-cost medical services. Many students come to school with far less structured family support, and more difficult social, emotional and behavioral challenges.
One defining characteristic of public schools, however, is that they accept and are committed to the success of all these children. Even families who may choose other education options know that the public school is always there to meet their needs if other schools cannot or will not. Therefore, all Kansas appropriately support these schools through their tax dollars.
A second defining characteristic is that the public schools which are responsible for educating all students and are supported by all taxpayers are also accountable to the people of Kansas at four levels. First, locally elected boards of education are responsible for leading schools in each community. Second, the State Board of Education elected by districts sets and enforces statewide standards. Third, State Legislators are responsible for “suitable” funding to ensure resources exist in every district to meet state standards and for other state policies. Fourth, Kansas judges, subject to voter retention, interpret and enforce these responsibilities.
Despite the progress Kansas has made, there is still much to be done. Too many students still fail to complete high school and postsecondary training to meet projected employment needs and provide a middle-class lifestyle for their own families. There are significant differences in student success, as students from lower income families and minority groups, with disabilities and other issues are less likely to meet these goals. Too many students become disengaged from school, face mental or physical health issues or fear for their safety. While these issues are present in other states and non-public schools as well, they remain the top focus of school leaders in Kansas.
To address these challenges, Kansas public schools will have to continue to change. With the vision “Kansas leads the world in the success of every student,” the State Board of Education has launched a new school accreditation system, a first-in-the-nation measure of postsecondary success tied to individual school districts, and a process for redesigning schools based on four key principles: (1) Student success skills, (2) Personalized learning, (3) Family, business, and community partnerships, and (4) Real work applications.
With this vision and the support of a five-year funding plan approved by the Kansas Legislature, local school boards, administrators, teachers and other school staff are working to improve public schools and outcomes for students, families and communities. Change is difficult, unsettling, and often leads to mistakes before finding success. It will require more from everyone in the system. But the alternative is to accept the way things are as the best they can be, or even begin to lose the gains of the past.
Kansas public schools welcome your questions, ideas and support as we work to preserve what is working well and improve where we fall short for all students in Kansas.
Mark Tallman is associate executive director of advocacy for the Kansas Association of Schools Boards, which is a not-for-profit organization that serves local public education boards and is dedicated to being a voice of education and improving student outcomes.