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1966 Revisited


Pardon me while I brush the dust off my hands and clothes, but I've been down in the basement of the News Center digging through what used to be called the newspaper "morgue," which is where we keep copies of every edition the Journal-World has ever printed. Thank goodness for microfilm.

I was down there sifting through papers from the fall of 1966 to find out what people were thinking and writing about when Kansans were voting on a constitutional amendment that would overhaul the governance of K-12 education. That amendment inserted the now-controversial mandate that the legislature "make suitable provision for finance of the educational interests of the state."

We'll get to that in a minute, but first it should be noted that the education question was only one of three constitutional amendments on the ballot that November. The other two: doing away with the old system of the legislature adopting two-year budgets; and bringing the Kansas income tax code into closer conformity with the federal tax code.

It just can't escape notice that three of the biggest issues taking shape in this year's legislative session seem to be geared - intentionally or not - toward the undoing of all three of those measures.

Also, it may or may not be relevant to anyone today that the Lawrence Journal-World editorialized in favor of all three amendments.

Now, back to the education amendment. The question I was trying to answer was what, exactly, was the amendment trying to change, and anyone at the time foresaw the consequences of the language they were about to etch into the constitution.

As near as I've been able to fathom, the answer to that last question is no. The language about "suitable" funding appears to have been generic language, similar to constitutional provisions in other states, that merely reflected a growing, but little-understood trend that was taking place nearly a half century ago whereby state governments were assuming greater responsibility for organizing and financing public education.

Historians might mark that era in the early- to mid-1960s as the time when Kansas finally shed its 19th century frontier mentality about schools in order to modern modern civilization. When the 1966 amendment was put on the ballot, Kansas was just coming out of a long and politically gut-wrenching process known as "school district unification."

That began with the School District Unification Act of 1963. Prior to that, there were literally thousands of school "districts" of various types in Kansas. Some of them were little more than single buildings in small towns and villages that offered only limited educational services. To keep them all straight, every county had an elected "superintendent of public instruction."

There's an interesting history of school district unification on the Kansas City, Kansas, school district's website for anyone who wants to delve into it more deeply.

By 1966, though, the process was wrapping up, and it must have occurred to somebody that it was time to change the state constitution to reflect the new reality.

According to the Journal-World's editorial on Friday, Nov. 4, 1966, the education amendment would accomplish five things: "(1) establishment of a State Board of Education elected by the people and representing all areas of the state; (2) a commissioner of education chosen by the board; (3) improvement of the status of local school boards; (4) abolition of the county superintendents being made obsolete under unification; (5) focus more attention on state vocational and technical education."

Not a word about requiring the legislature to make suitable provision for financing all these new districts. People can speculate now about why that wasn't a question. The most plausible reason is that in the 1960s, funding of education was still largely a local responsibility. Although states were gradually getting more involved, it probably hadn't occurred to anyone that this would one day become a primary function of state government.

After 1966, two important things started happening: a trend known as "Outcomes Based Education," and the beginning of a long series of equal protection lawsuits insisting that states give the same educational opportunities to all students, rich and poor; whites and minorities.

Outcomes Based Education is grounded in the idea that schools ought to be judged and held accountable on the basis of how well their students learn. Prior to that, schools were pretty much judged (and accredited) based on "inputs." How many teachers did they have in the classrooms? How many books were in the library? Did they offer all the courses needed for a high school diploma, or for a kid to get into college? Were there enough textbooks to go around?

The trend began in academic circles in the late 1960s and early 1970s. But it was thrust into the national spotlight in the summer of 1983 when a task force assembled by then-President Ronald Reagan published a seminal report, "A Nation at Risk: The Imperative for Educational Reform."

That was the report that spelled out in shocking detail how the product of America's public education system was so poor, it actually constituted (in the minds of the authors) a national security threat.

"If an unfriendly foreign power had attempted to impose on America the mediocre educational performance that exists today, we might well have viewed it as an act of war," read one oft-quoted passage.

In Kansas, that led to approval in 1992 of the Quality Performance Accreditation and School District Finance Act - often shortened to just "QPA."

That was a landmark piece of legislation that did two things. It changed the accreditation system for public schools by requiring them to meet particular standards for student achievement; and it put the state of Kansas squarely in charge of funding local schools - levying a uniform statewide property tax for schools, and distributing money through a (somewhat) uniform, per-pupil funding formula.

That law was actually a response to the first in a series of constitutional lawsuits against the state, USD 229 (Olathe) vs. Kansas, which challenged the equity of taxes and funding for public schools. Olathe at that time was in the category of medium-sized districts which, when all was said and done, got the least amount of funding per pupil, and therefore had to levy some of the highest local property taxes.

But the thing that escaped everyone's notice when the QPA law passed was how it would tie back to the constitution, and that obscure passage about "suitable" funding. If the state was going to take over the primary role of funding public schools, and the state was going to hold schools accountable for educational outcomes, then it would logically follow that the state would have to provide the funding necessary to produce those outcomes, and it would have to provide enough funding to produce similar outcomes across the board, including for the most challenging and disadvantaged students.

In other words, "outcomes" - not the legislature - would define what level of funding was suitable.

During the same period, starting in the early 1970s, lawsuits started popping up around the country demanding that if states are going to provide educational services, they have to provide the same level of services to low-income minority neighborhoods as they give to the wealthier white kids in the suburbs.

For an overview of litigation, check out the National Education Access Network website, which shows a map of all the states that have been involved in similar litigation, and how many of them have ended up losing.

So now Kansas lawmakers are toying with the idea of amending the constitution again - possibly by removing the word "suitable" from the financing mandate, or by making some other changes to clarify that only the legislature can decide how much is appropriate to spend on education.

And what will be the long-term legal consequences of that? Stay tuned.


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