Topeka Kansas’ top elected officials refused to help the Topeka school district’s efforts to try to secure a $40 million, three-year federal education grant.
Topeka School Superintendent Julie Ford said Wednesday that she was surprised Gov. Sam Brownback and U.S. Sens. Pat Roberts and Jerry Moran, all Republicans, declined to assist in the district’s effort to land the Race to the Top Grant from the U.S. Department of Education.
“It’s our tax money, and it’s going to go somewhere. So why not Kansas kids?” Ford said.
As part of its grant submission, Topeka school officials sought letters of support from Kansas political leaders.
The grant was aimed at raising student achievement, narrowing the achievement gap and improving teachers’ effectiveness.
“These are all goals the governor supports,” said Brownback’s policy director Jon Hummell in an email to Topeka school officials.
But Hummell said the grant encouraged the use of Common Core standards, which he said have "been questioned by legislators at the state and federal level.”
Common Core standards are a model for teaching and learning math and reading that are aimed at better preparing students for college and careers. Forty-six states, including Kansas, have approved the standards, and they are starting to be implemented in the classroom. The standards are described as more rigorous than previous standards, focusing more on depth of knowledge rather than breadth.
Hummell added that Kansas legislators have requested an audit to determine the cost of adopting Common Core State Standards.
“I believe it would be more prudent for the governor’s office to withhold any endorsement of an application that includes the adoption of the CCSS until we have an opportunity to review the results of the audit,” Hummell said.
Ford said the school district’s request for support for its grant application was also turned down by Roberts and Moran. U.S. Rep. Lynn Jenkins, R-Topeka, did support the grant, Ford said.
Moran said Race to the Top grants lead to more federal government interference in education and that school officials in Kansas told him that because of the many requirements of the program, it would be unlikely that small, rural districts could win grants. Roberts’ staff forwarded congressional testimony Roberts gave in opposition to the Race to the Top grant program.
“Whenever I meet with any K-12 (kindergarten through 12th grade) education group from Kansas, the one major message I receive is unified opposition to RTT because it places small/rural states at an unfair disadvantage,” Roberts said.
“In addition, I do not believe the federal government should be mandating a one-size-fits-all education reform agenda by proposing a financial reward system in order to force states to make changes deemed worthwhile by the administration,” he said.
Recently, the Topeka school district found out it didn’t make the cut for the grant. Ford said 270 districts nationwide applied for the funds.
She said much of the grant’s proposal was aimed at improving early learning and pre-kindergarten, which she said is particularly important in the Topeka school district where three-fourths of the students are eligible for free or reduced lunch.
Although the district didn’t receive the grant, Ford said putting the grant together helped district officials strategically focus on current and future needs and gather important input from the community.
For Brownback, this isn’t the first time he has resisted federal interaction. Last month, he announced that his administration wouldn’t partner with the feds to set up a health insurance exchange under the Affordable Care Act, or Obamacare.
“Kansans feel Obamacare is an overreach by Washington and have rejected the state’s participation in this federal program,” he said at the time. Critics said he wasted an opportunity for Kansas to have input on the exchange in order to score political points.
In a related move earlier in his administration, Brownback sent back a $31 million federal grant that would have helped the state set up the exchange, which is aimed at assisting consumers in the purchase of health insurance.
And so far, Brownback has declined to sign on to federally funded expansion of Medicaid, saying that he is studying the issue.