Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Governor’s task force on school efficiency criticized for not hearing teachers

By SCOTT ROTHSCHILD, The Lawrence Journal-World

TOPEKA — Gov. Sam Brownback's task force on school efficiency was wrapping up its work Monday after having heard from school administrators, school board members and critics of school funding.

But the task force hasn't allowed time, and apparently won't, to hear from those who are in the classroom every day — teachers.

"Our voice, when it comes to education decisions, is critical because we are the ones that are intimately involved in that work," said Kansas-National Education Association President Karen Godfrey, who has taught for more than 30 years in the Seaman school district in Shawnee County. "It is disappointing when our input is not sought and it isn't even welcomed in some circumstances," Godfrey said.

In an email obtained by the Lawrence Journal-World, Ken Willard, the chairman of the Governor's School Efficiency Task Force, rejected a request from KNEA to allow teachers to testify before the panel.

Willard said that he wanted the task force to spend its last meeting hearing from presenters who had been previously scheduled for an earlier meeting — including the state librarian — and to discuss issues for possible recommendations to Brownback.

"I would very much like to hear from teachers at the classroom level who have suggestions for improving efficiency in the allocation of education dollars, so while we will not have time for more testimony during the task force meeting, I would love to have teachers submit their testimony in writing for consideration by the task force," Willard said.

Four educators were on hand at a KNEA news conference to share with reporters what they would have told the task force, which was meeting upstairs.

They said reductions in school funding over the past several years had increased class sizes and reduced the number of counselors, librarians, janitors in schools, as well as funds available for professional development.

This meant, they said, they had less time to prepare lessons and collaborate with colleagues, and had to spend more time on chores, such as vacuuming classrooms and cleaning tabletops.

And they said fewer school counselors was having a negative impact on students' mental well-being.

Todd Roberts, a third-grade teacher in Derby, said his class has access to a social worker one day each week. He said half of his students are from divorced parents. "I have kids crying because they think they won't see Mom or Dad for a week," he said.

Judy Johnson, a counselor in Great Bend, said the high school there of 1,000 students has one librarian with no support staff, and the elementary schools have no counselors.

"It might be efficient to have no elementary counselors … but is it really educationally effective? The students who are dealing with so many things, they need our help," Johnson said.

And the educators said they feared the tax cuts signed into law by Brownback were going to result in more cuts to schools.

"No amount of efficiencies that they are talking about in that committee upstairs can make up for what has already been cut out of school budgets, and no amount of efficiencies can make up for what is potentially going to be cut as the governor's tax bill takes effect," said Mark Desetti, a KNEA spokesman.

Kansas spends about $3 billion each year in state revenue on public schools, which makes up approximately half of the state budget.

Brownback signed into law tax cuts that will drop the top state income tax rate to 4.9 percent from 6.45 percent, and exempt the owners of 191,000 partnerships, sole proprietorships and other business from income taxes.

Legislative researchers have estimated that the cuts will be worth $4.5 billion over the next six years. The researchers also project that the cuts will create collective budget shortfalls approaching $2.5 billion during the same period.

State budget experts say the state is already facing a $328 million revenue shortfall next year.

Brownback has said school districts should focus more of their resources on classroom instruction and find ways to reduce spending on functions that don't affect teaching. Some ideas that have been discussed are sharing administrative resources and purchasing power.

But Brownback's task force has generated controversy since he announced its formation in October.

It was under fire immediately because it was dominated by accountants and no one on it was an educator or worked in a school. Brownback also established a website where people could anonymously report inefficient spending in the educational system.

Democrats and education groups said the task force was set up to attack public schools. In the task force's first meeting on Oct. 8, it heard from the Kansas Policy Institute, which has been a critic of how schools spend money.

In setting up the task force, the governor's office said only 15 of the state's 286 school districts complied with a state law that requires at least 65 percent of state funds be spent in the classroom.

But there is no such legal requirement, and school officials released a report that showed based on state funding, all school districts were surpassing the 65 percent level.