State Board of Education at 50: Five decades of change and progress in Kansas public education

State Board of Education at 50: Five decades of change and progress in Kansas public education

The Kansas State Board of Education is celebrating its 50th anniversary this month. Voters amended the Kansas Constitution to give the board responsibility for “general supervision” of public education and to provide “intellectual, educational, vocational and scientific improvement.” The same amendment put the responsibility of elected local boards to manage schools in the state constitution.

It’s a good time to reflect on how things have changed over those five decades.

The typical Kansas classroom today is vastly different today than in 1969. The student population is more diverse, expectations are higher and societal challenges are more complex. At the same time, schools are safer, more student needs are being met, and educational attainment in Kansas is much higher.

In 1970, 60 percent of Kansas adults over 24 had completed high school and 12 percent had a four-year degree. Today over 90 percent have completed high school and 33 percent a four-year degree. Those percentages have increased every decade.

Short term outcomes also increased. One measure of Kansas high school graduation (average freshman graduate rate) increased from 80.8 percent in 1990-91 to 88.4 percent in 2012-13. (The U.S. rose from 73.7 percent to 81.9 percent). A new, more stringent graduation calculation (adjusted cohort graduation rate) increased from 83.0 percent in 2010-11 to 86.5 percent in 2016-17. (The U.S. rose from 79.0 percent to 84.6 percent.)

Students are graduating with more credits. According to national data, a 1982 high school graduate earned about 21.5 units, increasing to 27.1 units in 2009. The average number of math and science courses increased by more than one full unit each. Kansas raised graduation requirements in the 1990s and 2000s and instituted qualified admissions standards for state universities. The number of students taking both high school and college courses has tripled over the past 25 years, from 4,125 in 1996 to 13,800 in 2019.

Despite high profile school shootings, schools have become safer by most measures. National data shows school and student crimes rates have fallen. Kansas school crime reporting has also shown a decline over the past decade. Safety has improved as more schools have implemented new or expanded security measures, from more secure buildings to drug testing to enhanced communications technology.

Despite recent concerns about electronic cigarette, the use of illicit drugs, alcohol and cigarettes by 12-17-year-olds have decreased dramatically since 1985.

The role of technology has changed. Nationally, the number of instructional computers tripled from 1995 to 2009 and the percentage with internet access increased from less than 10 percent to nearly 100 percent.

Kansas students have also changed. White students made up 84 percent of public- school enrollment in 1993 and 64 percent in 2019, with largest growth in Hispanics and multi-racial categories. Low income students eligible for free or reduced-price meals increased from 33.4 percent in 2001 to 47.2 percent in 2019.

Kansas English Language Learner students increased from 3.2 percent in 2000 to 10.6 percent in 2015. The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act passed in 1975, and today about one in six receive special education services.

How have schools, from the State Board to local school boards, accomplished improved outcomes, safer schools, meeting more special needs and more technology? They have added all-day kindergarten, preschool, more special education staff and services, more specialized courses, more summer and afterschool programs, more security and serve more meals. If Kansas schools had the same staff/pupil ratios as in the mid-1980s, there would be 5,500 fewer teachers and 5,000 fewer special education paras, classroom aides, security and technology staff, bus drivers and all other staff.

These people, programs and the facilities to support them have come with a cost. After adjusting for inflation, total school spending has increased 66 percent more than inflation since 1990. However, the Kansas economy has grown even faster, in part because higher education levels result in higher earnings. Total school district expenditures are a slightly lower share of the total income of all Kansans than in 1990.

What hasn’t changed over the past 50 years is the important role public education plays in preparing young Kansans for their future. The current State Board of Education’s “Kansans Can” goal to lead the world in the success of every student is based on that commitment.