Representatives of the Kansas Association of School Boards visited McPherson on Thursday to update Region 5 of the state on legislative issues, funding and the future of education in Kansas.

The visit is part of an annual tour of the state’s 10 districts that focuses on training and sharing information on the hot topics for Kansas schools.

Mark Tallman, associate executive director for advocacy with KASB, visited the Sentinel to discuss several issues facing education in Kansas.

Gannon v. State of Kansas

The Kansas Supreme Court ruled last week that the new school finance formula violates the adequacy and equity requirements of the Kansas Constitution. The court directed the State Legislature to fix the problem in the next session.

“Most of our members believe that though the legislature added additional funding in a formula similar to what our member supported, there was still a sense that this alone wouldn’t do,” Tallman said. “It seems that the court is KASB saying, even though it was a good first step, it was still just a first step and it’s not enough. We’d fallen enough behind where we should be in funding, while being asked to do even more with it.”

On the KASB tour, administrators and teachers across the state are giving input as the organization determines its formal lobbying positions.

“Many of our members are concerned about the overall state budget and that’s what makes it such a difficult issue. We don’t want to squeeze out funding for other important services,” Tallman explained. “Our role is to help legislators and their communities understand what that additional money would be used for. We could enhance schools to make more kids successful and keep us moving forward, so there’s a purpose for those additional dollars.”

The Gannon v. State of Kansas cases have bounced through the courts and the Legislature for seven years.

Most legislators in this region voted for the new formula in June, which stipulated increased state aid. However, the court deemed the increase of nearly $300 million over two years fell short. The court also noted provisions in the formula contributed to the gap between schools in wealthy districts and those in districts with a lower tax base.

The Legislature must act before the end of April. Oral arguments on the changes will be made before the Supreme Court on May 22, 2018 and the court will render its decision June 30, 2018.

School redesign

Two McPherson County schools are involved in the Kansans Can school redesign project, led by the Kansas Department of Education. The McPherson school district is part of the primary Mercury 7 project of seven districts, and the Canton-Galva district is part of the Gemini project of 21 districts. Each project is focusing on implementing new education strategies.

“I don’t have a sense of how things will look because we’re still dreaming about what it could be, but it sounds like schools are hoping to make things more individualized and more focused on having kids demonstrate what they know through projects and activities, rather than taking a test,” Tallman said. “There are many districts looking at doing new pieces of things, but the old rule for starting class at 8 a.m. and having class periods until 3 p.m. might change a lot. A very challenging thing will be to continue doing things that work well for many kids, while trying to do things very differently for kids that haven’t been successful.”

Mercury project schools are currently planning our redesign elements and will implement them in the 2018-2019 school year.

“It’s a very ambitious timeline, so part of the reason why these districts were selected was because it looked possible for this to happen in this time,” Tallman said. “Gemini schools are no different than Mercury schools, but they don’t get the direct, hands-on assistance from two staff members dedicated to the project from the state. Those two people can only do so much all over the state, so we limited it to seven schools, but there was so much interest that we opened it up for them to participate. They’re not expected to launch next year, but if they get there, they can.”

USD 418’s focus is on the five outcomes defined by the Kansas Board of Education’s Kansans Can vision: kindergarten readiness, social and emotional support; individual plans of study; increasing graduation rates and increasing postsecondary participation.

To improve kindergarten readiness, the first big area of focus is preschool. The McPherson School Board’s long-term goal is to allow every parent with a three or four-year-old to attend preschool free of charge at their choice, not as a requirement.

For the second area of focus, the district seeks to improve its support for social and emotional issues facing students. In the third area of focus, McPherson’s graduation rate is about 85 percent, the same as the overall state rate, so the district plans to address other issues affecting graduation.

The district has found that many issue facing students do not originate at school, but arise from poverty or mental health issues that are often intertwined.

Although the district has been focused on improved college and career readiness for many years, USD 418 still hopes to add more project-based learning. This puts more emphasis on students demonstrate skills through activities, rather than traditional testing over content.

Tallman explained that schools might work more like a job, with long-term projects and schedules that aren’t broken into 45-minute periods.

“There’s so much hope in redesign schools to find if we can actually make that work. The challenge is validating that and saying that you have your three units of science and so many units of English on a transcript, though you many not have gotten that unit of biology by going to class for an hour a day. That’s what we hope to figure out,” Tallman said. “We’ll see how it goes and more and more districts will be able to implement what works, and we’ll also rule out some things that don’t work.” 

100th anniversary

This year features the 100th convention of KASB, held in the first weekend of December this year.

“Decade by decade, there’s been new challenges that required local boards to have more services and our job as the association is to help them any way we can,” Tallman said. “We’re struck by how education is always changing. In Kansas, K-12 education was very local and very fragmented. Our association developed out of the teachers’ association and we’ve changed over time as the state and federal government took on a larger role in education.”

Issues the organization is addressing this year cover a wide swath of topics, include funding, healthcare changes, school choice and rural broadband.

Contact Cheyenne Derksen Schroeder by email at cderksen@mcphersonsentinel.com or follow her on Twitter at @MacSentinel.