Putting a round peg in a square hole

Putting a round peg in a square hole

On Monday, October 2, the Kansas Supreme Court released its ruling on Gannon v State, finding the school funding law to be unconstitutional on adequacy and equity.
As with past rulings, we heard criticism about activist judges, inefficiency and lack of accountability. But let’s remember, the court studied stacks of exhibits, thousands of pages of documents, multiple precedents and hours of testimony to reach its conclusion. The trial record alone was 21,000 pages and since then more than 3,300 pages of briefs have been filed during the numerous appeals in the case.

The Kansas Supreme Court is the final arbiter of the Kansas Constitution and has consistently ruled that schools are not adequately funded. In its ruling, the court noted that Kansas schools have been funded appropriately for only three of the past 15 years.Now come the arguments that what we really need is more accountability for schools. Kansas schools are audited annually through an independent audit process, by the Kansas State Department of Education and by the federal government. They are subject to audits by Legislative Post Audit. All expenditures are approved monthly by locally elected boards of education. That is a lot of accountability.

But there is another kind of accountability. Some say what we need is better accountability for results. Put me down as an advocate for this idea. The devilish details are revealed in the question: “What results?” We spent 15 years focused on improving a reading and math score, measured by a standardized test. I fell victim to the cult of assessment. What we have learned is that score is not the result that matters. In fact, it isn’t a result at all, it is a small indicator in a greater result.

Six years ago, the Kansas Association of School Boards sponsored a series of listening tours in communities all over the state – our Kansas Conversations. Over 100 communities had discussions about their schools. The one issue that rose to the top? We spend too much time on standardized tests.

A few years later, the Kansas State Board of Education went on a listening tour of the state and asked a different question: “What do we want for our children?” Kansans answered loudly: “We want them to be successful adults.” So now we have an outcome, a result, that is meaningful. And the State Board said, “We are going to hold schools accountable for student success.” Now we have an accountability measure on which we can all agree.

Meanwhile, back in Topeka, our Kansas Legislature struggled to develop a school finance formula that would pass constitutional muster. Kansas Education Commissioner Randy Watson likes to use a space exploration metaphor, so I will use one here.

Recall the scene from Apollo 13: a room full of engineers are assembled and boxes of materials and equipment are dumped on the table with the directive to figure how to ‘put a round peg into a square hole.’ For our legislators, the square peg was a budget depleted by a failed tax plan and a gubernatorial veto, and the round hole was adequately and equitably funded schools. They did the best they could with what they had. But the court has said the solution didn’t save the ‘astronauts.’ Clearly, more resources were needed.

The challenge is still there. The fix wasn’t good enough. I feel bad for the engineers of this solution. They worked hard. They are already being targeted in their re-election campaigns. They put heart and soul into crafting a workable solution. Now they must go back to work. Our job as school leaders is to provide them with support. We must help in every way we can to bring a workable solution to bear by April 30, 2018 – the Court’s deadline.

We have an accountability measure just like the Apollo engineers did. They needed to bring the astronauts home. We need to set our children forth on a path to success. We have a goal. We have a task. We have a deadline. Let’s get to work.