Education debate gains new intensity

Proposals for charter schools, vouchers further muddle funding controversy

? Almost a year ago, the Kansas Supreme Court told legislators they were failing to adequately fund education and must improve the state’s schools.

Now, $290 million later, legislators are still trying to figure out what it costs to maintain a strong school system.

As they struggle with the question, State Board of Education members and Education Commissioner Bob Corkins are injecting two ideas for school reform into the debate, arguing they will answer the court and improve student achievement.

But critics say the reform proposals – for more charter schools and vouchers – are nothing more than a distraction.

The two ideas have been kicked around Topeka for years but haven’t gained much support in the Legislature or with the state board. But that changed with Corkins’ hiring as commissioner in October. He has long advocated increased competition and choices for parents and students.

“These are especially relevant debates to have right now because of the lawsuit,” he said during an interview.

Ruling on funding

The Supreme Court’s ruling early this year came in a lawsuit filed in 1999 by parents and administrators in the Dodge City and Salina school districts.

They sought $1 billion in additional funding to close achievement gaps between poor and minority students and their wealthier and white counterparts.

Legislators responded to the court’s concerns by increasing the funds targeted at poor and minority students. Kansas now spends more than $3 billion on K-12 education.

Corkins said the Supreme Court is most concerned about at-risk and special education students, and the proposals for vouchers and more charter schools, drafted by a transition team he created, are designed to address their needs.

Others say the education system has changed in the past five years and is making progress, mainly through increased focus on strategies for students with special needs.

Board member Sue Gamble, of Shawnee, who didn’t support Corkins’ appointment, said of the new ideas, “This appears to be a solution that is looking for a problem.”

“I don’t think it is productive in helping us get along with our path of continuous improvement,” she said.

Corkins has found a favorable audience in the state board’s conservative 6-4 majority, which is expected to ask legislators to create scholarships for special needs students and make approval of new charter schools easier.

Corkins’ transition team proposed creating $5,600 student scholarships for at-risk and special need students, as well as allowing parents and groups seeking to open charter schools to appeal to the state board.

Charter schools

Currently, local school boards must approve applications for charter schools, with no appeal if they’re rejected. Only 26 charter schools operate in Kansas. Nationally, 40 states have charter school laws.

Corkins said there’s a concern about whether charter schools in Kansas are operating as originally intended, or as the federal No Child Left Behind reform law envisioned in making grants available to such institutions.

The idea, he said, was to regulate such schools less, in return for offering innovative programs. But he said charter school operators haven’t asked for any waivers of regulations from local school boards because they know the idea is a nonstarter.

He sees charter schools benefiting rural areas, allowing districts to have schools that serve small groups of students, in space that’s less costly than school buildings designed for larger enrollments.

He said the vision is to have different educational programs for different kinds of students, creating more choices for parents.

“Competition is not the end game here,” he said. “It is just a recognition that one size does not fit all.”

Corkins said there’s no concerted attack on public schools.

“There’s not going to be any mass exodus out of K-12,” he said.

Gamble said many charter schools were formed so districts could tap additional federal funds. However, in time, some of those schools were absorbed by the districts and the teaching innovations became part of the system for all students, she said.

Opposing view

The Kansas Association of School Boards opposes both of Corkins’ proposals, saying they will relegate public schools to a “choice of last resort” for parents who can’t get their children into private or charter schools.

The organization argues that charter schools or any one that would receive state funds should have to abide by all the rules that public schools face.

“What we oppose is the mechanical idea that should bypass the people who are elected to make these decisions,” said Mark Tallman, KASB’s assistant executive director.

Corkins said the goal is to give parents more control over where their children go to school and what is taught.

“I don’t think you can get more local than that,” he said.

Former commissioner’s view

Andy Tompkins, the man Corkins replaced and who now teaches at the University of Kansas, said the state is improving its education system because local school boards, administrators and teachers are more accountable and are using information they have about their students and reacting accordingly.

By focusing on student achievement, test scores are increasing and Kansas continues to lead the nation, Tompkins said.

He told a recent gathering of local school board officials: “Be advocates that work with people in the community to share a common vision for the education of all students.”