Three northeast Kansas parents were in Pratt Thursday with a message to local parents and taxpayers: Find out what the Kansas Legislature and your legislators are doing in relation to education and funding and let them know your concerns.
Kansas has a representative form of government, but representatives are not used to hearing from parents, said Judith Deedy, a member of a grassroots organization, Game On For Kansas Schools. She warned that although she has not heard a single legislator saying they’re not pro-education, they don’t always vote that way.
Deedy, Karen Wagner and Devin Wilson spoke to about 30 parents at a meeting at Liberty Middle School. They also made a presentation to the Pratt Rotary Club’s noon meeting and to business and community leaders at 5:30 p.m. The visit was facilitated by Skyline Superintendent Mike Sanders and Pratt Superintendent Suzan Patton.
Game On For Kansas Schools formed a few years ago when parents in the Shawnee Mission district were concerned with school funding. They began meeting with their representatives and senators and, as the funding situation worsened, they rolled out a campaign to get more parents involved throughout the state.
They rely extensively on a website, gameonforkansasschools.com, and a Facebook page to spread their message.
The message Thursday dealt primarily with what they consider to be privatization of public education — pending legislation that gives taxpayer money to private schools.
A corporate education tax credit scholarship program “is being sold as a philanthropy to get students out of failing public education,” Deedy said, arguing that education has challenges, but is not failing.
Students qualifying for free and reduced lunch has increased by 30 percent, and English language learners by 10 percent, while achievement scores have remained flat.
“That doesn’t look like failure to me,” she said.
She further explained that a person who makes a $10,000 donation to the program receives a $7,000 tax credit, which comes out of the state general fund. Education represents the biggest portion of general fund expense.
A voucher bill, giving money to parents for private school tuition, has been ruled unconstitutional in other states, because many of the schools accepting vouchers are religious schools.
The group testified against a bill that would allow for-profit charter schools in Kansas, entirely separate from public schools. They would not be guided by a local board, would not have to “prove anything” by way of test scores, and if the business became unprofitable, the school could simply close.
“Research says charter schools don’t last very long and they’re pretty picky about who they take,” Sanders commented.
“Already tried in other states, these ‘reforms’ do not improve student performance but they do siphon funds away from the true public schools which serve all children and they do put public funds into private hands” is the statement on Game On’s website.
Information that Kansas spends more money on schools than ever before is misleading, Deedy said. What has increased is the state’s contribution to KPERS, a retirement program that covers teachers and other public employees that was under-funded for years, and spending for bond and interest payments. None of that money is available to hire teachers or equip classrooms.
The fact is that base aid per pupil is lower than what the legislature’s own studies determined to be adequate, she said, and a Supreme Court decision challenging current funding levels is pending.
The superintendents also expressed concerns about proposed bills to move school board elections, held in April of odd years, to the general election in November. Proponents believe it will increase voter turnout. Opponents, including Kansas Association of School Boards, worry that school board candidates will be lost on a long ballot, especially when national and state elections are contentious.
“My fear is we will get out-of-state PAC (political action committee) groups involved in school board elections,” Patton said. “Who would want to run if you know you will be opposed by outside groups?”
Sanders also commented on Gov. Sam Brownback’s initiative to fund all-day kindergarten. Both local districts have had all-day kindergarten for years, but currently receive state funding at the rate of 0.5 FTE (full time equivalent). The intention, Sanders said, is to take funding for at-risk students and programs from schools and use it to fully fund kindergarten.
The Game On group encouraged someone in the community to step forward as a “point person” to advocate for education.