Education funding requires capital infusion in 2001
As Kansans we should feel very fortunate about the quality of our state's public school system. Since the adoption of QPA (Quality Performance Accreditation), Kansas has been recognized as a leader in the national movement for "standards-based reform." The goal of these reforms is to bring all students to high standards of academic achievement. And for the most part, the school districts of Kansas are making significant improvement in student performance. The average scores on state assessments in math, reading and writing have increased during the past five or six years the tests have been given. Also, the percentage of students scoring "unsatisfactory" has dropped and the percentage scoring at the highest levels has increased.
Nationally, Kansas students rank in the top 10 in many categories. Two years ago, Kansas participated in the NAEP reading assessments for the first time. Kansas fourth-graders scored eighth in the nation and Kansas eighth-graders scored fifth in the nation. Kansas students are also tied for third in the nation in graduation rate, and tied for third for the lowest high school drop-out rate. In addition, Kansas students are tied for fifth for the lowest percentage of teens not in school or not working, and Kansas ranks seventh-highest for the number of citizens over 25 who are high school graduates. Finally, Kansas has the eighth-highest percentage of adults with a college degree.
Another bright spot for the state is college entrance tests. More than 75 percent of Kansas high school seniors take the ACT college entrance exam. And with this high percentage, Kansas students still score well above the national average. Kansas ranks seventh among states in which a majority of students take the ACT. And, no state with as high a percentage of students taking the test scored higher than Kansas last year.
Locally we also are making improvements on state and national tests. Most of the student scores on state assessments at Tonganoxie Elementary School and Tonganoxie High School, are near the state average and have made steady improvements since the tests were first administered. The largest achievement gains have been at the junior high. As well as having larger increases at the junior high, some of the scores have reached the standard of excellence level, as established by the state education department. Furthermore, scores have shown a steady increase on the Stanford achievement tests that nearly all Tonganoxie students take annually.
All improvements in student performance indicate a strong public school system in Kansas. This system has been developed and maintained at a bargain price. In 1997-98 Kansas ranked 30th in the nation in the amount it spends on each student.
The seven states that scored higher than Kansas on the NAEP reading test spent an average of $1,000 more per student than Kansas spent. As Kansans we should feel good about the bargain we are receiving in our public school system. The under spending also can be an indication of a crisis that our education system will face if the funding is not appropriately addressed soon.
In 1993, the Kansas Legislature established a new funding formula that established a base aid for each pupil. The state establishes a public school district's maximum general fund by using the per pupil base aid (and other factors) and multiplying that figure by the public school districts' total student enrollment. Since 1993 the base budget set by the state has increased by about half the rate of inflation. During this time the Legislature has cut taxes $800 million. As the Legislature was cutting taxes, most public school districts (including Tonganoxie) have been forced to adopt a "local option budget" to make up for the $300 million lost in "buying power" due to inflation. In addition to this funding shortfall for all of Kansas school districts, enrollment is declining in more than two-thirds of the school districts (including Tonganoxie). That puts additional economic pressure on those districts.
There are many other areas where funding falls short for the continued improvement in student performance. State and federal special education mandates have not been fully funded. In addition, no additional funding has been provided for technology education, which is an expectation for qualified admissions to the state universities. Additional funding could also be used for improved programs for early childhood development and programs for disadvantaged children, so that no student is left behind.
Another area of great concern is recruiting and retaining high-quality teachers and staff. That is especially true in Tonganoxie. Of all the items in the our district's general fund and local option budget combined, 72.3 percent of the budget is obligated to salaries for teachers, administrators and support staff. Kansas classroom teachers have received lower annual increases than state university faculty, state employees and private sector employees since 1995. With a strong state and national economy, fewer qualified people are becoming teachers with good reason. Teachers earn $15,000 less annually less other employees with college degrees. Because Kansas ranks 34th nationally in teacher salaries, it is difficult to attract high-quality applicants.
One important way to continue the progress in student achievement and improve salaries of teachers and staff members is to significantly increase funding to Kansas schools. Without that, schools are faced with cutting programs and reducing appropriate pay increases for teachers and staff. It is up to us, the residents of Kansas, to decide if we want improvements in student performance to continue or, at best, stagnate. We all must remember that better Kansas schools mean a more productive workforce, better quality of life and more attractive communities in which to live, work and raise families.
Bob DeHoff is president of the Tonganoxie school board.