We at the Journal-World are trying out some Twitter hashtags.
The thing about hashtags, though, is that there needs to be a community of people who all use them and know what they mean. If you're already tweeting about state and local education, post a comment below and let us know what hashtags you're using. Meanwhile, here are a few we've been using at the paper:
#usd497 - for general items about the Lawrence school district.
#usd497BOE - for items about the Lawrence board of education.
#ksde - when tweeting about the Kansas State Department of Education
#ksboe - for the Kansas State Board of Education.
Also, here are two I'm proposing that I hope will really take off: #LawrenceDB8 and #Lawrence4N6 for info about Lawrence and Free State high school debate and forensics.
Finally, if you really want to be in the Twitter-loop about state political news in general, don't for get #ksleg for the Kansas Legislature, and #kspolitics.
In Case You Missed It: Test scandals; school reform; funding lawsuits; and more
I like reading news and analysis about education issues from beyond the borders of the Sunflower State. Once in a while, it serves as a heads up about things headed our way. The last week or so has been especially interesting.
Boycotting standardized tests
Last month, teachers in Seattle refused to administer required standardized tests to ninth-graders, calling the Measures of Academic Progress (MAP) a waste of time, among other things. Now there's concern the boycott may spread to other cities and states.
Teachers cheating on their own tests
A national scandal is erupting in three states about prospective teachers paying others to take their certification tests. Here's a good roundup about the scandal by the New York Times.
State school finance litigation
The National Education Access Network keeps tabs on school finance lawsuits throughout the country. There's a good interactive map that shows where plaintiffs have won, and where states have prevailed. Two states worth looking at – Nebraska and South Dakota – are where courts held that funding is actually a legislative function and cannot be decided by courts. Note, however, that their state constitutions are very different from the Kansas Constitution.
Market-based education reform
Jeff Bryant writes in the Washington Post how school reform measures being pushed in statehouses and by the Obama administration benefit the for-profit education industry, to the detriment of minority students. His conclusion: “Over 10 years (after No Child Left Behind) we see how education reform mandates have played out – powerful corporate interests are mining new profit centers while poor children of color, who were the intended beneficiaries of reform, are getting stuck with the shaft."
Junk food vending machines
Education Week reports on efforts by the U.S. Department of Agriculture is trying to get schools to put healthier food in vending machines.
Republicans in the Kansas Senate introduced a constitutional amendment this week aimed at putting an end to school finance lawsuits, including the one currently headed to the state Supreme Court.
It would limit the language in Article 6, Section 6, that requires the legislature to "make suitable provision for finance" of public schools by inserting another sentence saying that only the legislature can determine what "suitable" funding is.
After the November elections, when conservatives allied with Gov. Sam Brownback gained full control of the Senate, a lot of people speculated they would be able to run the table on pretty much any issue they wanted. And the issue of school finance lawsuits has been high on the conservatives' priority list for a long time.
But a few statehouse wags are parsing the results of a few recent votes, and it looks like the table may not be as clear as people thought. For the first time in many years, it's looking like the House may be the moderating force over the Senate this year, rather than the other way around.
First of all, changing the constitution is hard because, well, it's supposed to be. The framers felt that if someone wants to change the fundamental structure of government and alignment of powers, they should have to muster something more than a majority of 50 percent plus one.
In Kansas, it takes a two-thirds majority vote in both chambers just to put an amendment on a ballot for voter approval. (At that point, though, it only takes a simple majority of voters to pass one.) That's 27 votes in the 40-member Senate; and 84 votes in the 125-member House.
That doesn't seem to be a problem in the Senate. On Wednesday, conservatives got 28 votes in the upper chamber for a constitutional amendment to change the way Supreme Court justices are chosen, another key issue for the conservative movement.
The House, though, may be another game entirely. To do the math in reverse, it takes 42 "no" votes in the lower chamber to block a constitutional amendment. Democrats control 33 of those votes, and they've shown remarkable discipline in holding those together on issues they think are most important. That means they only need to peel of nine moderate-leaning Republicans to block a constitutional amendment.
This week's vote on the bill limiting political activity of public employee unions may provide a glimpse into how much power is held by conservatives on education issues. That bill passed the House Thursday, but with only 66 votes. That included 23 Republican "no" votes.
The thing to remember, of course, is that every vote is different. There is nothing to say that the next union bill to come up (and there are two more in the pipeline) will result in the same breakdown. Specific issues matter. And it really matters how much pressure the governor, House speaker or Senate president want to apply if he/she decides to make that issue a top priority.
But it's probably premature at this point to assume the outcome of any constitutional amendment is a foregone conclusion.
Deena Burnett was visibly, if not always audibly, disappointed Wednesday after the Kansas House advanced a bill aimed at limiting public employee unions from engaging in political activity.
After the House voted 66-54 to advance HB 2023 to final action, she placed a piece of duct tape over her mouth to demonstrate her belief that teachers and other public employees would be silenced if the bill becomes law.
The bill passed the House on final action Thursday, 68-56, and now heads to the Senate for consideration.
It didn't stay there long, though, because Burnett was really in a mood to talk.
"It discourages me that public school teachers lose their opportunities to free speech," Burnett said.
The bill is being called the "Payroll Protection Act," and it basically says that union dues and contributions that are automatically deducted from members' paychecks may not be used to fund political activities.
Currently, teachers who join the union can have their regular dues deducted from their paychecks, but they have to agree separately to have an additional $20 per year ($1.67 per month) taken out as a contribution to the union's political action committee.
For its part, the Lawrence school board's legislative priority list for 2013 includes no mention of changing collective bargaining laws one way or the other. Superintendent Rick Doll has said the district has always had pretty good relations with the teachers union.
Supporters of the bill say it simply takes government institutions - school districts, state agencies and municipal governments - out of the business of processing financial contributions to political organizations. If public employees want to contribute to PAC's, they say, those employees can write a check, or arrange to have the contributions automatically deducted from their personal bank accounts.
They also say it protects employees from being coerced at the workplace into contributing to union political activities.
But Mark Disetti, lobbyist for the Kansas National Education Association, the statewide parent organization of the Lawrence union, says the bill goes beyond that. Specifically, it prohibits public employee unions from using any of the money they do collect through payroll withholding for any kind of political purpose.
"So when you go to the school board and you say, 'we'd love for you to pass this policy limiting class size in kindergarten,' that's a public policy decision by an elected body, and I believe under this bill that's prohibited if we did it with any money collected though payroll deduction," Disetti said.
Burnett, a language arts teacher at West Middle School, said she was able to attend the House debate on a school day because her position as the local union president allows her to spend half of her time attending to union business.
The Lawrence High School forensics team brought home honors from a tournament at Lansing High School.
Mona Ahmed, sophomore, won first place in original oratory, and the duet acting team of Sarah Smoot, senior, and Abbie Wise, junior, also won first, qualifying them for the state tournament to be held in Olathe on May 4.
Meanwhile, Charles Hopkins, senior, and Matt Mantooth, sophomore, went undefeated to win first place in public forum debate.
Other team members winning honors were:
• Charles Hopkins, senior, sixth place, foreign extemporaneous speaking.
• Allie Straub, junior, third place, informative speaking, and fifth place, impromptu speaking.
• Mark Stevens, junior, sixth place, Lincoln-Douglas debate
• Alex Moriarty, freshman, second place, congressional debate — novice House.
• Kaitlyn Preut, freshman, third place, congressional debate — novice House.
• Stefan Petrovic, freshman, first place, congressional debate — House.
• Hanna Lee, sophomore, second place, congressional debate - House.
• Bradlea Padgett, sixth place, congressional debate - House.
Youngsters from preschool age through sixth grade will have a chance to learn a dance routine and some cheers from the Bishop Seabury Academy cheerleading squad, and later to perform a routine during a basketball halftime show at the school, 4120 Clinton Parkway.
The cheer clinic will be from 1 to 3 p.m. Saturday, Feb. 9. Check in time is 12:45.
The "Little Seahawks" will then get a chance to perform at halftime during the school's basketball game Friday, Feb. 15 against Heritage Christian Academy. Game time is 7:30 p.m.
The fee for the clinic is $30. Registration forms are available at www.seaburyacademy.org.
For more information, contact Michelle Murphy, 312-9392.
By Peter Hancock
By now, politicians and legal scholars of all stripes have found things they either love or hate in the lengthy school finance decision in the case of Gannon vs. Kansas. So at the risk of piling on, let me just add one of my own little pet peeves: the consistent misuse of the words "effect" and "affect."
By my count, there are no fewer than 19 instances of those words, or their derivatives, being misused in the document. That averages out to one instance every 13.2 pages. (The initial text version that I opened in the OpenOffice Writer program came out to 326 pages, but the official version posted on the court's website in .pdf format is 251 pages, plus appendices.)
I started noticing this within minutes of receiving the ruling on Jan. 11. But in the rush to get stories posted online, and later filed for the print edition, we all had bigger issues to deal with. And I'll admit, if anyone happened to read a few of those initial online posts before the editors had time to catch them, they would have found more than a couple sentences with missing words or syntax errors of my own making.
But let's be clear. This decision was written by not one, but three highly educated, veteran jurists who were aided by clerical staffs and who took more than four months to finish their writing.
So, to review our high school English lessons:
"Effect" is a noun. One thing has an effect on another thing. It is only used as a verb in the sense of bringing about the effect of something. The word "effectuate" also works in that sense, but only if you're not afraid of sounding pompous.
"Affect" is a verb: The Jayhawks' win over K-State last night affected the two teams' standings in the Big 12 Conference. There are rare cases when "affect" is used as a noun, such as when political scientists refer to a candidate's "political affect" — the ability to generate feelings or emotions, especially affection. Outside of academia, though, it probably should be avoided unless, again, you don't mind coming off as a snoot.
In the court's lengthy tome, however, the words seem to be used interchangeably, and almost always incorrectly. A few examples:
• "The staff and program cuts occasioned by reductions to the (base state aid per pupil) look to have effected all school districts." (Page 108.)
• "What the affect of this represented philosophical change in the (local option budget) is, what changes to state supplemental aid payments mean, and what the effect of reductions in the base student aid per pupil (BSAPP) is, all need to be considered." (Page 86)
I especially like that last one because it uses both words in one sentence, one incorrectly and one correctly.
There is one passage, though, where both words are used side-by-side, and it's hard to tell what either one of them means. Moreover, it appears to be a fairly important sentence:
• "The State of Kansas is hereby enjoined from performing the unconstitutional act of enacting any appropriation, or directing, modifying or canceling any transfer, or using any accounting mechanism or other practice that would, will, or may in due course, affect, effect, or fund less than the base student aid per pupil of $4492 ..." (Page 247)
Such errors can negatively affect the public's view of the court and the legitimacy of its opinions. We'll have to wait and see what effect, if any, it has on the Kansas Legislature.
Gov. Sam Brownback's School Efficiency Task Force has delivered its report, identifying 12 recommendations on how its members say Kansas schools can get more school funding "into classrooms" while spending less on administration and overhead costs.
Brownback's office identified the final 12 recommendations in a news release Monday.
When Brownback announced the task force in September, he noted: "only 15 of the 286 school districts in Kansas adhere to state law that requires at least 65% of funds provided by the state to school districts are to be spent in the classroom or for instruction."
In fact, the statute he cited does not make such a requirement, but merely establishes that as a policy goal, and many observers have criticized it for being vague because there is no clear definition of what constitutes "classroom" spending.
In reporting how money is spent for various purposes, school districts rely on the U.S. Census Bureau's definition for instructional costs, which includes the salaries of teachers and coaches, but not the cost of libraries, guidance counselors, speech pathologists and a number of other services.
The task force apparently recognized that as a problem, and one of the 12 recommendations calls for establishing a commonly accepted definition and reviewing the 65-percent standard.
The list also includes a proposal that has already gotten strong opposition from teachers unions: "Revise/narrow the Professional Negotiations Act to prevent it from hindering operational flexibility/resource assignment." That's the state law that spells out the issues that are subject to collective bargaining.
Another recommendation calls for establishing a statutory two-year budgeting cycle. The governor's news release did not explain how that would affect the distribution of school funds between instructional and non-instructional costs.
Other recommendations in the report include:
• Placing a "priority emphasis" on making sure the state makes timely payments to school districts in January and June, something the state failed to do a couple of times during extremely tight budget years.
• Conducting a study to re-evaluate state equalization aid for bond and interest payments. Brownback proposed eliminating that in future years (although the state would continue paying obligations it has already incurred) as part of his school finance reform package introduced last year, and folding the money into a new base per-pupil aid formula. His contention was that the money does not necessarily go to school districts that need it the most, but rather to qualifying districts where voters are most willing to approve new bond issues.
• To study implementing a state data management and accounting system that would integrate K-12 school systems and post-secondary institutions in order to streamline data reporting and administrative processes.
• Restructuring the allowed uses of capital outlay funds. That's money districts raise through a separate property tax mill levy to fund certain kinds of big-ticket purchases. The state is supposed to provide equalization aid for those funds as well in order to reduce wealth-based disparities among districts. But the state has not funded those subsidies in several years. Brownback has raised the same objection about that expense as bond and interest equalization aid. A three-judge panel in the school finance lawsuit said that without the equalization aid, the entire system of levying taxes for capital outlay funds is unconstitutional.
• Enacting legislation to eliminate, reduce and consolidate the cash reserve accounts and other separate fund accounts that districts currently can maintain and giving districts more flexibility in how those funds are spent. Conservatives in the legislature have long criticized districts for maintaining high cash reserves while simultaneously seeking increased funding for general operating budgets. School districts counter that they need to maintain reserves to manage cash flow and meet credit rating requirements.
• Authorizing a study of school district administration personnel structures and positions, and developing a state plan for district-level administrative reorganization and alignment:
• Place a limit on the duration of due process proceedings for special education hearings.
• And conducting an efficiency study/audit of the Kansas State Department of Education.
In addition, the committee recommended inserting a requirement — "if not already included" — that anyone seeking a license to be a school superintendent take a college-level course in finance, accounting and budget management.
The Kansas University School of Education requires completion of a course in "school resource management," which includes study in budget management, accounting and fiscal policy.
Not all credit rating services are seeing a gloomy outlook for the state of Kansas in light of a recent court ruling about school finance.
Standard & Poor's confirmed last week that it has not changed its credit rating outlook for Kansas in light of the decision in Gannon vs. Kansas.
"We have not issued any outlook or ratings changes due to the court ruling on school finance. Kansas remains AA+ with a stable outlook," an S&P spokesman said in an email to the Journal-World.
On Jan. 11, a special three-judge panel ruled that the Kansas Legislature had failed to meet its constitutional duty to provide suitable funding for public schools. It ordered the Legislature to increase base state aid to schools by at least $442 million, or $654 per pupil. The panel also declared the system of levying local taxes for capital outlay budgets unconstitutional unless the state resumes funding "equalization" aid for those funds to reduce wealth-based disparities between districts.
Last week, in its weekly market outlook report, Moody's Investors Services said the Gannon decision, in combination with recent income tax cuts, cast a negative cloud on the state's financial picture.
"Although subject to appeal, this ruling is credit negative for Kansas (Aa1 negative) and underscores challenges the state faces as it tries to offset revenue losses from the income tax cuts it enacted last year," the report stated.
Those credit ratings can have a direct bearing on the interest rates investors charge on new debt issued by the state. They can also affect the market value of existing debt when institutional investors try to buy or sell existing bonds.
Moody's Investors Services is calling last week's court ruling on school finance a negative credit factor for Kansas.
"Although subject to appeal, this ruling is credit negative for Kansas (Aa1 negative) and underscores challenges the state faces as it tries to offset revenue losses from the income tax cuts it enacted last year," Moody's said in a report Thursday.
"The latest education-funding ruling comes at an inopportune time for Kansas," the report continued. "The state last year passed a law that consolidates its personal income tax rates at 3% and 4.9%, removing the 6.45% and 6.25% top rates as well as the low rate of 3.5%. The income tax cuts have been projected by the state legislature to reduce general fund revenues by about $800 million, or 13%, in fiscal 2014, which starts 1 July. In addition, prior sales-tax hikes sunset this fiscal year, returning the state’s sales-tax rate to 5.7% from 6.3%."
David Jacobson, a spokesman for Moody's Public Finance Group, said the negative outlook does not have any immediate impact on the state's credit rating, but signals the possibility that the credit rating could be downgraded in the next 12-24 months.
Over the last two years, as the state has cut school funding and pressured school districts to spend their down cash reserves, Moody's has issued cautionary statements about bond issues from individual school districts.
For example, in 2011 when the Leavenworth school district issued $8.8 million in new bonds, Moody's assigned the district a Aa3 rating, noting that one of the challenges facing the district was the fact that, "Kansas' restrictive school funding structure limits (the) district's ability to grow reserves."
The Lawrence school district, however, received positive marks last month when it refinanced a series of 2006 bonds. Moody's gave the Lawrence district a Aa2 rating and listed as one of the districts strengths, "stable financial operations with healthy reserves within the parameters of the state education funding structure. But it noted as a challenge, "state per pupil revenue reductions in recent years."
On Friday, Jan. 11, a special three-judge panel ruled that the Kansas legislature has failed to provide suitable funding for public schools as required by the state constitution. The court effectively ordered the legislature to add an estimated $442 million in base per-pupil aid to schools.
It also said the entire system of levying local taxes is unconstitutional, unless or until the legislature resumes funding "equalization" aid that subsidizes those funds for less wealthy districts.
Before the ruling, Kansas was already facing a projected $267 million budget shortfall, mainly because of revenue reductions stemming from income tax cuts enacted in 2012.
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.