Out of the classroom

There has been a lot of rhetoric thrown around about putting education funds "into the classroom." The Governor and his office like to use that phrase, as does the leadership in the Kansas Legislature. It's a populist cry, one that everyone can agree on. Certainly, let's put more money into the classrooms, why not?  Who would disagree?

But such a broad populist refrain misses the details. And details are important. When talking about education, we have said before, those details are children.

The point has to be made (again and again, apparently) in this debate: despite their rhetoric, Kansas has not increased school funding in recent years. Inflation, shell games with pension funds now counted as "education" funds, and "extraordinary fund" sweeps have left schools with less buying power than in previous years. But despite this, the political leadership in Kansas maintains that, the best road to educational success is to pay attention to what goes "into the classroom."

But what does that mean?

In the minds of the Governor and his allies, "into the classroom" means anything that supports their end goal of decreasing the amount of public funds going into public schools. In a recent release, the Governor's office extolled their increased support of education financially, while also decrying wasteful, irresponsible spending on the part of school districts, even resurrecting the piano again.

They use this rhetoric to put a shine on their own defunding of education, they use it to cast school district administrators as over-spending bureaucrats, and they use it to justify criticizing teachers, teaching, and educational standards.

By covering KPERS pension funds for teachers, they say in the letter above, the state is "freeing up general operating funds to go towards teachers." The implication being that if the state did not magnanimously do this, districts would have to pay for these pensions leaving less money to put "into the classroom." Never mind that the state is legally obligated to fund pensions. Never mind that KPERS funds were not included in "education" funding until last year, when education cuts were made to sound less severe with the rolling in of these funds. Never mind that these pension funds spend a maximum of a few minutes in school district accounts before being removed again, a scheme that allows them to call their inclusion in education funding "true."

Another argument the state leadership makes is that districts should find efficiencies in their budgets, and direct these wasted funds "into the classroom" instead. When preparing to hand out millions in extra funds for increased district enrollment numbers, the state required districts to show five areas where they had eliminated inefficiencies, a favorite talking point of the Kansas Policy Institute. In awarding funds, however, those reports were ignored for an across the board percentage cut in requests. Nothing says "into the classroom" like a blanket disregard for increased enrollment needs. But dare to replace a single piano that has served tens of thousands of school children in an actual classroom, and see yourself crucified for reckless waste. 

Teachers themselves seem to be a source of wasted funds that could be put "into the classroom" instead. Over the past two years, efforts have ramped up to reduce teacher job security, reduce teacher requirements, and reduce educational standards. But eliminating due process hurts experienced, brave teachers. Eliminating certified teachers in favor of "adjunct" subject experts with no training in education eliminates experienced, effective teachers. Eliminating or neutering nationwide standards of excellence in curriculum cuts down on student success and opportunity. Add then, to the top of this pile, the Governor's recent push for merit pay for teachers... creating a cutthroat environment that eliminates collaboration, encourages slipshod educational standards, and further reduces new teacher incentives, and you have a recipe for declining education quality in Kansas.

In the end, the rhetoric of "into the classroom" means whatever they want it to. But to us, it means those services and people who give our children the opportunity to learn to their best ability, to grow, and to attain success. That includes the teacher, yes, but also the administrator who hires that teacher, who supports them, who supplies them with paper, a break room, books and curriculum. It includes the custodian who keeps the classroom clean, keeps the children safe, and the buildings standing. It includes the bus driver, the crossing guard, the secretary, the nurse, the counselor, the aide, and the parent volunteers. It also includes the desks, the computers, the pencils, the tape, the staples, the cleaning supplies, the tissues, the basketballs, the playground equipment, and yes, the pianos, too.

The Kansas leadership believes, despite years of underfunding education, that we still pay too much for education in Kansas. They would see funds cut even more. Efficiencies found. Money saved. Taxes lowered (well, not sales taxes, those rose a record amount this year).

And yet, private schools have received a windfall in the past two years, a scholarship program of up to $10 million provided by private corporations, but refunded up to 70% in tax incentives by the state. That is as much as $7 million in taxpayer money going to private and parochial schools.

How many pianos is that?

It is not about what we put "into the classroom" that should be our measure of success. It is what comes out of the classroom. Students. Children. Leaders. Citizens.

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