The year in review in Kansas public school educationScott Rothschild
By Leah Fliter
KASB Advocacy and Outreach Specialist
2019 saw a lot of changes in Kansas education.
The resolution of the Gannon school finance lawsuit was the biggest education policy story of the year but concerns about student health and well–being prompted new recommendations against vaping and bullying.
The State Board of Education’s focus on the continual improvement of Kansas public schools saw the launch of the “Apollo” phase of the school “redesign” initiative. Gov. Laura Kelly reinvigorated the Council on Education, and the state ramped up its focus on early childhood. The year ended with a controversial audit report on K-12 at-risk funding.
State legislators in April adopted a $90 million increase in K-12 funding to address the Kansas Supreme Court order to add an inflation adjustment to an earlier increase. Gov. Kelly signed the bill into law two days later, putting the matter back before the court for consideration.
The court upheld the new law in June and retained jurisdiction in the case to make sure the phased-in increase takes place over the next four years.
The opinion represented the seventh by the court in the Gannon lawsuit, which was filed in 2010 after cuts made to public schools in 2009.
In 2018, the Legislature approved a five-year funding increase adding $522 million to schools. During the 2019 session, in response to the court, the state added an inflation adjustment of approximately $90 million that is due to be applied each of the next four years.
The inflation adjustment was developed by the Kansas State Department of Education, proposed by the State Board of Education and Kelly and eventually approved by bi-partisan majorities in the House and Senate. It was also supported by KASB and many education groups.
Attorneys for the plaintiff school districts said the $90 million fell $270 million short of what was needed. But the court said the state’s fix “substantially complied” with the court’s previous ruling.
In retaining jurisdiction, the court noted plaintiffs’ arguments that the Gannon case was filed after the state cut promised increases during the earlier Montoy litigation, an attempt during the last session was made by some Republicans to reclaim education funds and the state’s “long-term failure to adequately fund education.”
Education advocates must remain vigilant because the funding increases OK’d under the Gannon decision must be approved each year by the Legislature.
Many officials, including Kelly, said they hoped schools would use the funding increase to increase teacher pay in order to attract and retain the best qualified staff.
Attention turns to student health and safety
The State Board of Education approved a policy aimed at prohibiting at school the use of e-cigarettes by students, school staff and visitors.
The policy forwarded to Kansas school districts expands prohibitions on tobacco products to e-cigs, vape pens and any other electronic products that can deliver nicotine.
Under the policy, students and school staff are prohibited from using, possessing or promoting any tobacco product (including electronic nicotine products) in any district facility; in school vehicles; at school-sponsored activities, programs, or events; and on school owned or operated property. School visitors would be prohibited from using such products in the same locations.
Violations of the policy could result in disciplinary actions outlined by the local school district.
Disciplinary actions could include notification of parent or guardian, participation in a tobacco education programs, referral to a cessation program or community service.
Schools across the nation and Kansas have reported an explosive increase in vaping among students from elementary to high school. Deaths and serious health problems have been associated with vaping as has an increase in addiction problems.
Between 2017 and 2019, the percentage of high school students in Kansas who have used an electronic vapor product has increased from 34.8 percent to 48.6 percent while daily users have increased nearly four-fold from 1.4 percent to 5.2 percent, according to the Kansas Youth Risk Behavior Survey. The 2017 survey was the first to examine vaping.
The vaping task force will continue work to recommend best policies on disciplinary and cessation issues.
The state Blue Ribbon Task Force on Bullying released a report that recommends a wide range of strategies to reduce bullying in schools.
In Kansas, 56 percent of sixth-graders, 63 percent of eighth-graders and 60 percent of 10th-graders and 12th-graders self-reported having seen someone bullied, according to the Kansas Communities That Cares Survey. Overall, 27.3 percent of Kansas students completing the survey in sixth-12th grades reported being bullied at school with 18 percent indicating it was in the form of cyberbullying.
The task force’s major recommendations are:
— Better support and direction for school districts. A statewide unit should be established to offer guidance and support to school districts as they implement policies, plans and training. A bank of promising practices needs to be collected and available for school districts.
— Continue and develop the state’s focus on social-emotional and character development education to address school bullying. Resources and supports on these initiatives need to be shared through better communication efforts.
— The State Board of Education should examine the current state law on bullying and determine if it requires changes and provide guidance.
— Local policies and plans must focus on relationships, school climate and culture, and the mental health impact of bullying in schools. Schools should strive to have at least the minimum recommended ratio of 1 to 250 school counselors and or social workers to students and a ratio of 1 to 500-700 school psychologists to students.
— The state needs better data on school bullying and measures for assessing program effectiveness. Improvements are recommended for the KCTC survey and school climate and teacher surveys should be considered to determine which bullying programs are evidence-based.
— Districts need to consider specific policies regarding cyberbullying and work with teachers, students, families, caregivers and technology/social media experts in finding effective ends for addressing this behavior.
— Training for in-service teachers and pre-service teachers on issues related to bullying and youth suicide prevention is recommended. The most promising practices to impact bullying behavior are those that are school-wide, universal and involve parents and families.
Apollo school redesign
Apollo is the fourth phase of the Kansans Can School Redesign, which was announced in 2017 in support of Kansas’ vision for education, “Kansas leads the world in the success of each student.”
The first phase was Mercury 7. To be considered for the project, districts had to designate one elementary school and one secondary school to be redesigned around five outcomes established by the Kansas State Board of Education that define a successful Kansas high school graduate, and what Kansans said they want their schools to look like in the future. Those five outcomes are social-emotional growth, kindergarten readiness, individual plans of study, high school graduation and postsecondary success. It is the goal of the State Board of Education and KSDE to have all 286 Kansas school districts redesigned by 2026.
All schools selected will serve as demonstration sites for other Kansas districts. The Apollo I districts must be able to launch a new school design in the 2020-2021 school year.
Apollo I schools were announced in April 2019; Apollo II schools will be announced in April 2020.
Governor’s Education Council reinvigorated
The Governor’s Council on Education was re-started in 2019 with an additional emphasis on early childhood education and the state embarked on a year of planning to improve the quality of early childhood services in Kansas.
Kelly put an emphasis on early childhood education, but she said education issues are lifelong. She told the council to work on education issues from pre-natal to postsecondary and into the workforce.
The council, led by former Kansas City USD 500 superintendent Cynthia Lane and Dodge City USD 443 Superintendent Fred Dierksen, was divided into four groups that in addition to early childhood also focused on work-based learning; workforce development systems; and competitive edge (addressing post-secondary programs tied to the state economy).
KASB Executive Director Dr. John Heim, KASB past presidents Patrick Woods of the Topeka USD 501 board and Frank Henderson of the Seaman USD 345 board and Mary Sinclair, a member of the Shawnee Mission USD 512 board, the KASB Legislative Committee and president of the Kansas Parent Teachers Association, serve on the council.
The Council delivered its recommendations to Kelly in December 2019. Its major recommendations include:
— Establishing a statewide public-private partnership to match philanthropic and private funds with state and federal resources in order to support community-informed and identified approaches to equitably meet the needs of Kansas children and families.
— Designating the Kansas Children’s Cabinet and Trust Fund to coordinate the Kansas Early Childhood Advisory Council to work on equitable access to programs serving children from birth to age eight. Federal law requires such a council and Kansas hasn’t had one since 2014. Supporters say this will help streamline a fragmented system of early childhood programs.
— Establishing a Work-Based Learning Coordinating Council to implement a comprehensive approach focused on identification of market value assets or skills and credentials sought by industry; develop and disseminate best practices, guidelines, procedures and protocols for implementation of work-based learning, inclusive of market value assets; identify strategies to address struggles and challenges; and measures progress on key outcomes.
— Implementing Real World Ready comprehensive policy approach that ensures Kansas students have equitable access to high quality work-based learning experiences designed to prepare each student for post-secondary and workforce success in high wage, high demand and critical need occupations in all regions of Kansas.
— Establishing the Advantage Kansas Coalition to implement a cross-agency and private sector strategic plan, focused on aligning education and training with the workforce/talent needs of business, industry and human services in the top eight industry sectors. Those sectors are health, education, manufacturing, construction, computer science, agriculture, energy and professional business services. The coalition would be led by secretary of the Kansas Department of Commerce, President/CEO of the Kansas Board of Regents and President of Kansas Chamber.
Early childhood efforts ramp up
Kelly announced the appointment of former state Rep. Melissa Rooker as the new executive director of the Kansas Children’s Cabinet and Kim Moore, former president of the United Methodist Health Ministry Fund, as chair of the Kansas Children’s Cabinet and Trust Fund. Kelly said Rooker and Moore will lead efforts to expand early childhood programming.
Meanwhile, Kansas education officials approved spending about $4.5 million for the Preschool Development Grant Birth through Five, which was provided by the federal government and authorized by the Every Student Succeeds Act. The state conducted 53 public meetings across Kansas in the spring and summer to gather input on what programs are available for children before they enter school and what needs are out there. Advocates also gathered stories online and conducted surveys to gather input from more than 6,000 Kansans. The goal is to put together a statewide system that improves early childhood on numerous levels, such as learning, health care, developmental screenings and parent education.
The team, comprised of representatives of the Kansas State Department of Education, Kansas Children’s Cabinet, Kansas Department for Children and Families and Kansas Department of Health and Environment, found that services to help young Kansans before they start school are inconsistent across the state and many families are struggling to provide the basics for their children.
The key findings and themes of the needs assessment are:
— Families with young children experience inequitable access to high quality programs and services across the broader early childhood system;
— Families with young children experience a gap between the services that are available and their actual needs, especially among underserved populations;
— Families must adopt a `connect the dots’ approach to navigate services across sectors; disruptors are frequent and common;
— Early childhood providers and stakeholders share a desire for collaboration and cooperation but these are often disconnected and uncoordinated;
— Early childhood workforce needs at the leadership and direct service levels include preparation, compensation and financial relief, ongoing training and support recruitment and retention;
— Needs exist related to the physical conditions and environments of early childhood facilities across the state;
— Greater systems alignment is needed in order to fully realize an efficient and robust early childhood care and education infrastructure;
— Efficient, innovative, responsive efforts are occurring among early childhood care and education system partners in communities throughout the state.
At-risk funds audit
The Kansas Legislative Post Audit Division released a report in December 2019 criticizing the State Department of Education’s oversight and guidance of the state’s $413 million program to support academically at-risk students. KSDE strongly disagreed.
The audit is one of series of studies commissioned by the Kansas Legislature in response to the Gannon school finance case. At-risk funding is particularly important because a key part of the Gannon case was that too many Kansas students are failing to meet state academic standards.
In addition, the “high density” at-risk weighting factor, which accounts for about $50 million in at-risk aid targeted at districts with higher percentages of free lunch students, will “sunset” after this year unless the Legislature extends it, which will likely increase focus on at-risk funding issues.
Districts receive at-risk funding based on the number students eligible for free meals under the National Student Lunch Program but provide services to students based on various academic and other measures of need. The audit noted that the 20 districts studied spent more on at-risk programs than they received in state aid. Districts must use at-risk funds for programs approved by KSDE.
The audit found that districts spent most of their at-risk funds on regular classroom teachers. KSDE guidelines allows district to use at-risk funds to pay teacher salaries in proportion to the number of at-risk students. For example, if a school has 30 percent of students identified as at-risk, then 30 percent of classroom teacher salaries may be paid with at-risk funds.
However, the auditors say state law and KSDE guidelines indicate at-risk funds are to be used for services “above and beyond” what non-at-risk students receive, and that KSDE does not effectively track the specific additional services provided to such students.
Further, the auditors criticized KSDE for approved school programs they believe lack a clear research base of effectiveness. For example, many districts say they are using at-risk dollars to reduce or keep low class size. But the audit reported mixed evidence on the effectiveness of class-size reduction.
Under state law, the State Board of Education is supposed to identify and approve evidence-based practices for at-risk programs and for the instruction of at-risk students. The audit report says the approved practices appear to be “good practices or resources for teaching generally,” but said according to statute, “the practices the board is supposed to identify and approve are programs and practices related to the instruction of at-risk students.”
In a written response and remarks to the committee, KSDE representatives said they were confident their practices complied with the law and said that practices supporting general education supported at-risk students as well. They said forcing districts to provide at-risk services exclusively through separate or “pull out” programs would be more expensive or impractical in many districts.
KSDE said that rather than only “pre-approving” a list of acceptable programs, it evaluated districts programs as part of school district accreditation and other accountability reports and used federal information resources to evaluate effectiveness.
The audit found that KSDE correctly calculated at-risk funding according to state law. It found a small portion of at-risk expenditures by districts did not appear to be related by at-risk programs.
The report also found that most other states use a poverty measure similar to Kansas to determine at-risk funding.
2019 laws enacted
During the 2019 legislative session, lawmakers also turned their attention to numerous other education issues.
Here is a list of bills approved and signed into law that will affect schools:
SB 9 - Authorizing the transfer of $115 million from the state general fund to the Kansas public employee’s retirement fund during fiscal year 2019.
SB 128 - Requiring at least nine safety drills to be conducted by schools each year including four fire, two tornado and three crisis drills.
SB 130 – Moving school board officer elections and organizations from July to January or at a date to be determined by the board. Allows school districts to make changes in the method of elections or voting plans at a special election, a primary election or a general election.
SB 199 - Creating the AO-K to work program that allows certain adults to earn high school equivalency credentials by participating in career pathway oriented postsecondary classes.
HB 2144 - Structure and financing of community colleges; the duty of transparency owed by community colleges to property taxpayers and students of community colleges; and reaffirming the students and taxpayers of community colleges as the priority in financial decisions, reporting processes, and transparency measures of community colleges.
HB 2087 - Concerning the motor-fuel tax law; relating to the definition of school bus; allows school districts to receive fuel-tax rebate on fuel for any district vehicle used to transport students.