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Archive for Tuesday, August 29, 2006

Pressure now on schools to make most of funding

August 29, 2006

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— For years, the mantra coming from school officials was that teachers knew how to help students learn but needed more resources.

More money for books, technology, specialized programs, upgraded facilities and better pay for teachers all were on the list. Give schools the resources, and student achievement would fly, they said.

Now legislators have promised more than $830 million over four years, and the pressure is on school districts to get the results they have long promised.

"If little Susie or Johnny still isn't learning, even with these massive funding increases, it's going to ring hollow to keep blaming the state and the Legislature," said Senate Majority Leader Derek Schmidt, R-Independence. "Teaching and learning have to happen in the schoolhouse; they can't be mandated from the Statehouse."

Funding increases legislators approved in 2005 and 2006 were forced by orders from the Kansas Supreme Court. The justices concluded that the state's system of funding public schools was flawed and that the amount of money going to classrooms was woefully inadequate.

Justices relied on evidence from a Shawnee County District Court trial of a lawsuit filed in 1999 by parents and administrators in Dodge City and Salina. That evidence indicated there were significant gaps in spending that caused corresponding gaps in student achievement.

Witness after witness testified that schools knew how to get the desired student results but needed more resources. The claims were similar to ones legislators heard repeatedly during their deliberations on school funding.

Legislators balked at first but eventually opened the treasury. In exchange for the money and relaxed restrictions, legislators also took steps to make sure they knew where the dollars would be spent through ongoing audits and reporting measures.

Justices also lifted their oversight of school spending by dismissing the lawsuit last month. While they didn't bless the Legislature's actions, the justices did indicate that legislators "substantially complied" with the court's orders.

In the future, state law will require legislators to increase school spending based on the rate of inflation, as well as to make adjustments recommended by a commission they created to monitor education trends.

"It's not going to be business as usual for the Legislature or school districts. It's going to be a whole new dynamic in how this issue is looked at," said House Education Committee Chairwoman Kathe Decker, R-Clay Center.

Still, educators began the new school year saying they didn't feel any additional pressure than what they already face. They cited state accreditation requirements, as well as student achievement goals prescribed by the federal No Child Left Behind Act, which states that all students must be proficient in math and reading by 2014.

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