Lawmakers debate what constitutes ‘suitable education’

? Legislators received plenty of suggestions Monday for how they should define a suitable education in Kansas.

And, legislators were told, any definition will be meaningless if they don’t provide schools with enough resources.

The Select Joint Committee on School Finance is meeting this fall to gather information about the state’s school finance formula and the requirements placed on schools by legislators and the State Board of Education.

During the 2004 session, legislators rejected proposed language defining a suitable education. But the committee expects to make recommendations today on a definition that, among other things, tells districts that the first priority is funding math, English, science and social sciences programs so that students satisfy graduation requirements.

The committee’s agenda included testimony from 20 people. The committee also received more than two dozen e-mails from parents and educators.

Much of the testimony came from nurses and counselors, arguing that their services ensure that students are prepared to do their best academically.

Cathy Oller, an elementary counselor in Arkansas City, wrote that students come from varied backgrounds and have many problems that distract them from learning, such as abuse, alcoholism and neglect.

“School counselors are the only mental health people many of these kids have access to,” she wrote. “Teachers have enough on their plate without having to worry about counseling kids, which they aren’t trained to do.”

Meanwhile, the Kansas Supreme Court is likely to have its own definition of a suitable education after its Aug. 30 hearing on a lower court ruling that the state’s scheme for distributing $2.7 billion in aid to school districts is unconstitutional.

The Supreme Court could consider funding for programs aimed at poor and minority students and the overall disparity in funding among school districts. Attorneys attacking the present system have argued that funding received by districts makes it virtually impossible to provide all students with a suitable education.

However, during Monday’s hearing, Sen. John Vratil, R-Leawood, said the Kansas Constitution requires only a suitable mechanism for funding, and “There is nothing requiring a suitable education.”

Vratil said defining a suitable education was an attempt to give the state a defense in future court cases by mandating where the state dollars must be spent first.

John Martellaro, president of Kansas Families United for Public Education, said defining a suitable education is folly and legislators will do more harm with narrow parameters.

“With all due respect to the best intentions of individual legislators, the same rule applies to gawkers at the scene of an accident,” Martellaro said. “If you can’t contribute something constructive, then please get out of the way.”