Opinion: Good news, challenges for schools

Even though COVID-19 is not fully behind us, it’s time to review where schools stand on the road to recovery.

Kansas has been fortunate to receive a healthy share of federal COVID-19 relief funds.

Higher education and schools will receive more than $1 billion in one-time federal COVID-19 aid spread over four years. Most public school distribution will be to individual districts, which are required to spend at least 20% to address learning loss. In Kansas the focus is to advance student reading skills, largely through K-3 teacher development. Funds also are set aside for summer session and after-school programs.

Since 2019, $145 million has been directed toward broadband access to help Kansas farmers and businesses, plus close the gap for students without reliable home internet connection.

If the infrastructure agreement now being considered in Washington passes, the $65 billion deal will include money for electric school buses, replacing lead pipes to ensure students have clean drinking water and expansion of broadband access.

Moreover, the Kansas Legislature has approved funding for the final two years of the Gannon v. Kansas school finance plan that will boost general operating budgets by about $900 million over six years.

This is where the good news ends.

Kansas schools may never return to past health and safety practices and certainly not to past social and technological environments. Students are encountering emotional difficulty, trouble making up for learning hampered by school disruptions, and infections may rise again.

The challenges are great, but Kansans also met great difficulty during the 1930s when high school graduation rates dropped to 60%. What happened then was remarkable.

A great structural transformation moved “dust-bowl” learning to more rigorous academics and a curriculum that included typing, shorthand, advanced farming techniques and other courses to prepare students for a manufacturing workforce.

By 2019, the Kansas high school graduation rate was 87%, although students from low-income families, some minority groups and students with disabilities lag about 10 percentage points behind in graduation rates compared with their peers. Vo-Tech learning has evolved from typing and shorthand to electronic communication for post-industrial skills.

The lessons of the 1930s — go big and take a fundamentally different direction — are needed post-COVID-19. The opportunity is here through a Kansas State Department of Education-appointed task force to study what should be required for students to graduate from high school.

The task force is significant because ultimately, though often not obvious, all schooling ties into the fulfillment of graduation requirements. Committee members will study whether the state should continue to use the current course-completion system (local districts may add requirements) or explore different ways to determine whether students have met state-level graduation requirements.

Here are questions the committee should expect:

• How can we achieve higher graduation rates for all students?

• How can we prepare students to enter post high school careers or university preparation because good 21st century jobs require more than a high school diploma?

• How can we ensure each student has home access to an electronic device and internet connection?

• How can we address calls for increased early-childhood education, personal finance study, the teaching of civics/citizenship and adding a community engagement/service requirement?

COVID-19 impact can’t be eliminated, but it can be managed, even turned to advantage. Restructuring worked in the 1930s. Bold changes can again lead Kansas schools to a better future.

— Sharon Hartin Iorio is dean emerita at Wichita State University College of Education.

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