Opinion: Frustration with K-12 schools is misplaced

August 24, 2013


By Marcel Harmon

School is in session again, and while visions of school supplies have danced in parents’ heads for the last several weeks, preparing for school can be frustrating. Navigating sometimes obtuse school websites for required supplies, calendar events and before/after school information can seem futile. Resulting anxieties are heightened for families starting at a new school or new to a community.

Varying degrees of individual attention and challenging opportunities available for your student can also be discouraging. Often such things as science, engineering or chess clubs exist only if championed by a teacher or community member on their own time and dime. Wondering if staff understand how to handle your child’s diabetes or seizures, particularly with registered nurses available only half time (or less), can be unsettling. And antiquated, poorly designed or inadequately operated HVAC systems resulting in sweltering classrooms will contribute to student headaches.

Most Kansas parents reading this have experienced similar problems in the past, are experiencing them now and probably will in the future. However, the majority of these frustrations originate not with your school district but with Topeka. We simply don’t spend enough on public education to:

l Compete with wealthier school districts or other industries to attract and keep enough personnel throughout their careers.

l Hire enough support and administrative staff to meet the widely varying needs of our classroom teachers, students and families, from nutrition and mental health to technology training and program administration.

l Construct and maintain the most energy efficient, healthy and educationally effective environments.

Admittedly, public education spending has increased historically. Referencing Kansas Department of Education data, between the 1989-1990 and 2012-2013 school years, per pupil spending in Kansas increased by 35 percent ($9,344 to $12,628, in 2013 dollars). This may seem significant, but, on average, it’s only a 1.5 percent increase per year. Limiting this to general fund dollars, which pay for such things as salaries, utilities, special education, etc., the increase has only been 12.5 percent since the 1992-1993 school year (though see the Tallman Education Report for a more nuanced funding discussion). For those who think this increase sufficient, consider the 21st century world within which education must now occur.

Our capacity to both generate and communicate information has grown tremendously since the late 1980s. The amount of academic research articles published annually more than doubled according to an article by Gali Halevi in the March 2013 issue of “Research Trends.”

Entire disciplines and professions have arisen, such as agricultural biotechnology, biomimicry and 3D animation. Technologies such as computers, tablets, smart boards, 3D printers and CNC machines range from newly introduced to commonplace in the classroom, often requiring facility improvements and professional development to implement. And research to better understand how students learn and more effectively teach is ongoing, resulting in the periodic assessment and adoption of new standards and methods.

This means that the number of personnel needed with the various expertise necessary to a) effectively translate all of this into the classroom and b) provide the support services necessary for day-to-day operations that effectively engage students, parents/guardians and the community, is more than it was in 1989.

In addition, according to the National Center for Educational Statistics, our public school facilities are over 42 years old on average and more often than not in need of significant improvements. Maintenance is also commonly understaffed.

The bottom line is that this 35 percent increase over 23 years hasn’t kept up with 21st century education demands or our aging facilities. To the critics who charge that Kansas public education inefficiently uses taxpayer dollars, I wholeheartedly agree. But that’s because increased “efficiency” requires additional funding to equitably optimize the education return for every dollar spent.

The next time you find yourself frustrated with a district’s lack of information dissemination or seeming inability to meet your student’s specific needs, share your frustrations beyond the local level. Reach out and touch our governor and state representatives – let them feel your frustrations, anxieties and fears. Better yet, support those running for office who actually support public education.

— Marcel Harmon is an anthropologist and engineer with master planning, design and evaluation experience of K-12 facilities. He served on the Kansas Review Committee for the Next Generation Science Standards as well as the USD 497 Elementary School Facility Vision Task Force.


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