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Local School Board Member Takes Aim at Kansas Education Funding

This is a typical Kansas school bus; this one carried the Valley Center volleyball team to the state tournament in Topeka in 2014.  It's simply used here for illustrative purposes, to represent education. (Photo by J. Schafer)

Earlier this month (January), Kansas Governor Sam Brownback blamed most of the state's budget shortfall on increased spending on public schools. He did so during his State of the State address.


Some Kansas educators have been taking issue with that statement. Guest Commentator Aaron Estabrook (ESS-tuh-brook) is one of them. Estabrook serves on the Manhattan-Ogden school board - and says Kansas is now faced with a potential crisis in education.
Guest Commentator Aaron Estabrook is on the board of education for the Manhattan-Ogden school district. He's also a combat veteran who spent a year in Afghanistan. He lives in Manhattan.

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(Transcript)

Kansas is at risk.

In 1983, President Ronald Reagan touted a report titled, “A Nation at Risk.”

After a year-and-a-half of study by the National Commission on Excellence in Education, the report found few encouraging signs about the American education system. In fact, the findings were atrocious.

Test scores were rapidly declining. Low teacher salaries and poor teacher training programs were leading to a high turnover rate among educators. And other modern countries were threatening to outpace America’s technological superiority. President Reagan was outraged and wanted America to do better. And for a while…we did.

Thirty-two years later, Kansas is taking a step backwards – maybe more than a step. In January, Governor Sam Brownback delivered his State of the State address. He said, and then repeated, that the rising cost of public school spending was the culprit in the state’s revenue shortfall – not his aggressive tax cuts. He then blamed prior Republican legislatures for conspiring to write an overly-complicated school finance formula – one that makes the “at risk” weightings too confusing for anyone to understand.  

In short, the governor blamed excessive education spending – and mostly former Republican lawmakers – for putting Kansas nearly a billion dollars in the hole. Seems the governor will throw anyone under the proverbial bus, in his quest to eliminate income taxes.

Now, the governor wants to repeal the school finance formula – a formula that’s been in place for decades. Instead, he wants to send block grants directly to schools. That’s left many educators wondering just how these dollars will be allocated… individually… to each of the state’s school districts? There are nearly 300 of them in Kansas. Won’t there be some kind of formula for doing that?  

Everything in the 1983 “Nation at Risk” report tells us that students who demonstrate risk factors – ranging from poverty to health to geography – require significantly more time, talent and treasure to close the achievement gap with their peers. The governor’s budget denies these facts.   

The governor believes it’s too complicated to use a measuring formula to decide which schools need more money and which schools need less. But just because the governor doesn’t understand how the funding formula works, does that mean it should be destroyed?

State judges have been telling us for some time that Kansas isn’t living up to its constitution duty to provide a suitable education to children – in large part – because we’re not allocating enough money. The governor’s response is three-fold: repeal the school finance formula, spend less on education and change the way we select justices, so future courts will have even less influence in the way Kansas educates its children.

Cutting taxes is great. But no other issue does more to drive long-term economic development than a well-educated workforce. Let me repeat that: nothing does more to drive long-term economic development than a well-educated workforce. Yet, while the rest of the country is investing in education, Kansas is putting itself at risk.

Thomas Jefferson once said, “An educated citizenry is a vital requisite for our survival as a free people.” Jefferson knew then what we still know now: good public schools are the foundation for any thriving society. But until public education becomes the constitutional priority it’s supposed to be in Kansas… the state will fall further behind. And no amount of tax-cutting will be able to fix it.  
 
Aaron Estabrook
Board of Education
USD 383 Manhattan-Ogden
 

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