Saturday, January 24, 2015

GUEST COMMENTARY: Education budget puts Kansas at risk

By Aaron Estabrook
USD 383 Board of Education

KANSAS CITY, KAN. ---- Kansas is at risk.

In 1983, President Ronald Reagan stood before the press and television cameras at the White House and held up a report titled A Nation at Risk.

Eighteen months in the making and written by members of the National Commission on Excellence in Education at the behest of Secretary of Education, the report examined the quality of education in the United States—and the findings were atrocious.

The commission found few signs of encouragement about the American education system. Test scores were rapidly declining, low teaching salaries and poor teacher training programs were leading to a high turnover rate among educators, and other industrialized countries were threatening to outpace America’s technological superiority.

The report provided mounds of statistical evidence —23 million American adults were functionally illiterate; the average achievement for high school students on standardized tests was lower than before the launch of Sputnik in 1957; and only one-fifth of 17-year old students had the ability to write a persuasive essay.

Thirty-two years later, Kansas Governor Sam Brownback aims to roll back the clock.

Today in Kansas, only one-fifth of four year olds have access to public pre-school. But before we get to that, last week Gov. Brownback delivered both the State of the State address and his budget. The speech blamed public education for budget woes, which is a lie, but he went further and pointed to prior Republican legislatures as crooks who conspired to make the “at risk” weightings too complicated and confusing in the hope to abuse tax dollars. There seems to be no one he won’t throw under the proverbial bus on the quest to income tax elimination.

The governor’s budget essentially rewrites history, or more accurately erases history. School districts are left wondering how the “block grant” will be allocated to each of the nearly 300 districts.

Everything since the 1983 Nation at Risk report tells us that students who demonstrate risk factors ranging from poverty to health to geography require significantly more time, talent, and treasure to close the achievement gap with their peers. This budget denies those facts. Gov. Brownback believes that those facts and their subsequent measuring formula for fund allocation are too complicated and confusing.

If Kansas doesn’t live up to its constitution and isn’t held accountable for not doing so, then the bedrock of democracy is cracked.

Thomas Jefferson said “An educated citizenry is a vital requisite for our survival as a free people”. All across the world people fear what they don’t understand. Simply because Gov. Brownback does not understand how the at-risk weighting formula works does not mean that it must be destroyed. Fortunately, it is education that rectifies the unknown and diminishes fear.

Under the new budget, each school district is facing unnecessary multi-million dollar cuts for at least the next two years. The rest of the country is investing in education, especially early education and Kansas is putting itself at risk. Gov. Brownback has taken none of the steps prescribed by the Federal Court that ruled he is already violating current constitutional law. Retention and recruitment of quality educators is more difficult than ever in this self-inflicted cannibalization of our education system. The future of Kansas is at risk.

Early Education is vital to that future. Pre-K for all four year olds is the national standard now. According to the Kansas Department of Education, Kansas is not meeting that standard, only one-fifth of Kansas four year olds have access to state funded public school. The evidence regarding early education is overwhelming. Kansas Department of Education report shows at least 7-10 percent return on investment for every dollar invested in school readiness preparation of our nearly 40,000 Kansas four year olds.

If all four year olds were to be grouped together they would constitute a population comparable to the city of Hutchinson. Age 4 also corresponds with the highest potential for learning to happen.

Young families are struggling to pay the exorbitant cost of private pre-school. It costs over $600 a month for pre-school in Manhattan, but only $600 a year for fees at the Public High School.

The immediate effects of young families seeing upwards of $7,000 in their pockets from child care savings a year coupled with the 7-10 percent long term return on investment for the child’s early education is staggering when you take that multiplied by 40,000.

No other issue does more to drive long-term economic development for businesses than a well-educated workforce.

Public education in Kansas is a constitutional priority, it is the fruit of the Kansans before us, and no other governor has done more to put that sacred trust at risk.