Sunday, February 23, 2014

Its Not Complicated, Local is Better… (Apologies to AT&T and karate ninja’s.)

“A Phi Delta Kappa/Gallup Poll reported that nationwide, 64 percent of respondents wanted more local government influence on schools, while only 24 percent said there should be less.” 

For a student at the University of Kansas, being from Hutchinson was considered being from “western Kansas,” or as we referred to it “God’s country.”  I got closer to learning the truth about the westernmost meridians when I taught government and history at Bazine Jr.-Sr. High School.  But it wasn’t until I moved to Leoti as superintendent that I really knew how far west Kansas goes.  At the time, Leoti had the westernmost Kansas stoplight on highway 96. 

Teaching government and history, I thought I knew something about politics, but Leoti taught me the real meaning of Tip O’Neil’s famous statement that “all politics is local.”  Being superintendent one sees the pride of community and begins to really understand the Kansas value of local control.  I remember our Representative (a Democrat) and Senator (a Republican) talking to me about solving problems at the lowest level.  It made sense then, and it continuous to stick with me. State interference isn’t needed in local matters. Local control is a Kansas value.

Kansas has a history of rugged individualism.  We stepped up and fought against slavery. We formed communities to help us be more efficacious in tough times.  Those communities grew strength from hard-times in the depression, the dust bowl, WWII, and the divisive 60’s.  Every community did this in their own way.  Every community set their own standards and solved problems in a unique manner.  The state helps with resources, but making decision has always been best when done at the local level.

Our system of local governance is being challenged now by some members of the state legislature.  Through HB 2227 and SB 211 we see a move to change election times, methods, and structure.  Some legislators want to add party politics to the local mix, move election dates, and change representative voting plans.  State politicians want to meddle in local government.

Local officials consistently trump state and federal representatives when it comes to the trust and confidence of the general population.  Surveys consistently say that the electorate supports their local officials, including those they send to Topeka and Washington, far more than the state's as a whole.

 A Phi Delta Kappa/Gallup Poll reported that nationwide, 64 percent of respondents wanted more local government influence on schools, while only 24 percent said there should be less. An Ohio study done by Fallon Research found that 65 percent of respondents said they had the most trust and confidence in their local school board, by far outpacing their governor, legislature, and state school superintendent combined.  

Local control is a Kansas value.  Unwarranted interference from the state level will create less focus on local issues and more on party positions and litmus tests.  Take a minute and contact your legislator to tell them how you feel about state-imposed changes on your local governance structure. 

Sunday, February 16, 2014

That's Gold, Jerry, GOLD!

I get a lot of feedback on my blogs, some good, and some bad.  This past week I have heard some concerns about the fact that I have not been “mentioning” Mark Tallman, and by mentioning I think they meant making fun of.  One individual was genuinely concerned about Mark’s health, apparently thinking that even I would give him a break if he were ailing.  Rest assured, advocacy fans Mr. Tallman is alive, well, and more verbose than ever.

In fact, Mark has produced three must read documents for policy wonks and data nerds alike.  The $250,000 Classroom* explains how schools spend their money, and why a number that sounds so big is actually quite reasonable.  Counting All the Money* should be required reading for any student of Kansas School Finance.  It explains the state perspective on school funding. School Funding, At-Risk and All Day Kindergarten* provides great information on what schools have done to meet the needs of at-risk students.

Mark refers to my blog as “your little blog” and mocks me for telling stories.  One of his friends (and a former friend of mine) in Legislative Research was talking about an issue recently and I asked her if she had read my blog on the subject.  She said she tried, but it was some nonsense about wolverines and she liked Mark’s better.  These people stick together.  I think they secretly refer to my musings as Tallman for Dummies.

Be that as it may, I want to take a stab at mining Mark’s latest blog for a gold nugget amongst all of the anthracite.  Those of you who know Mark, know he has never met a word he didn’t like, and therefore, I put myself at significant risk for cave-in and even black lung in trying to access the nugget in question.  Those are the risks I am willing to take on your behalf.

Because this is important, and truth be told, we wouldn’t know it if not for Mark’s extensive work, background, and context.  Here’s the nugget:  At-risk student achievement in Kansas has increased significantly over the past decade, as measured by two different assessments.

A decade ago 55% of at-risk kids in Kansas were at proficient or higher on state assessments.  That increased to 79% in 2010-11, a 43% increase in achievement.  On the NAEP, the percent at proficient or higher increased from 20.6% to 25.3%, a 23% increase. (NAEP defines proficient differently.)  Those are dramatic increases in achievement.

Another key point that Mark discovered is the percentage of children in poverty in Kansas grew more quickly than other states.  A decade ago we had 159,590 students on F/R lunches, last year that number was 224,370, a 40% increase.  The multiplier effect means we have done a better job of educating a significantly larger population of students.  The total number of students at or above proficient on the state assessments improved 35%, while the total number of students at or above proficient on the NAEP increased by 72%.  We have more students at higher achievement levels than ever before.  In spite of a 40% (64,780 students) increase in the number of at-risk students, we had 12,000 fewer students on the state non-proficient list.

That is the good news.  But there is bad news as well.  We still have an achievement gap.  Students from low-income homes do not do as well in school as other students.  Sixty-three thousand Kansas students were not at the proficient level on state assessments last year. We are doing better than most states and for significantly less money, but the gap still exists.

I saved the worst news for last.  Student achievement dropped between 2011 and 2013.   The drop coincided with less money going to classrooms from the state coffers.  Are the effects of spending on KPERS being substituted for spending in classrooms beginning to be felt by our students?  If so, we may have bought fool’s gold.

*The $250,000 Classroom:

*Counting All the Money

Monday, February 3, 2014

Outside the Averages: Some Very Special Students

A good friend of mine has two lovely daughters that are about the same age as my sons.  When one of the girls was very young, a tumor began to grow and wrap itself around her spinal cord and the base of her brain.  This caused developmental delays and physical issues that continue to manifest themselves as she has matured into her 20's.  I had the honor of bestowing a diploma on her for her good works in high school. She is quick with a smile, loves computer games and hates it when the Royals lose.  She works at a job during the day and with her parents support is happy and as healthy as can be expected. She has been successful because she has a loving family and she got a free and appropriate public education.
I have been thinking about my friend as I hear politicians talk about the $250,000 classroom.  In a throwaway line in the state of the state speech, the governor did a quick math problem and said an average classroom in Kansas gets $250,000 a year. Some have claimed this number is inaccurate, others say it is a sign of inefficiencies.  But is it? (For more on this see The Quarter Million Dollar Classroom )
Averages are tricky and by definition don't tell the whole story.  We have all heard the story of the man with his head in the oven and feet in the freezer who, on average, is very comfortable.  So too it is with per pupil, or classroom funding.

Although I have been in all kinds of classrooms in my career, I popped in for a visit at a nearby school for a reminder of some of the challenging students like my friends daughter schools are called upon to educate.  

Let me stop and challenge every board member, patron, or policy-maker who has not done so recently to visit one of these classrooms in your local area.  

When you visit you will be struck first by the joy that exists in these classrooms.  It is a reminder that we provide educational services to all children not because it is the law, but because it is the right thing to do.  You may not recognize the educational goals, but you will recognize the joys and frustration of teaching and learning. I visited after lunch and saw one child who was working on a developmental goal of sitting upright in her wheelchair for 30 minutes. (A requirement because of her feeding and breathing tubes.) The teacher was patient and the girl worked hard while growing tired and frustrated.  

You will also notice the adult to student ratio is very high.  In the classroom I visited for grades 1-5, only one student had complete bathroom control.  All others were learning.  Two students were in wheelchairs and had feeding tubes.  One student required being aspirated by her full-time nurse.  All of the students had a wide range of needs that were being met.  I asked the teacher how many adults were involved in providing services to these students.  Her response:

Adaptive PE teacher

Speech and Language teacher
Occupational Therapist
Physical Therapist
Vision and Hearing impaired teacher
Special Education Teacher
Social worker
School Psychologist
Four full-time paras
There were five students in the classroom, and while the first words out of the teacher's mouth were "I love my job," I challenge anyone to keep up with the level of activity that I witnessed in that room. Not so obvious is the specialized training that each staff member has to have, based upon the individual student's needs.  From CPR and first aide to emergency feeding and medical services, to instructional tech, these educators are all highly skilled and trained.

A visitor will also notice that the physical accouterments of this classroom are very different from the typical elementary room.  There is a large bathroom with a changing table and area.  There is a shower room that doubles as a sensory room for students who need a break from bright lights.  The teachers use iPads and computer programs as instructional tools, and there are various apparatus for enhancing student mobility such as wheelchairs, carts, machines that help with standing, and others that help with crawling.  Large notebooks line shelves and each contains a daily record of medical issues experienced.

When asked about the requirements of educating special education students, the KASB legal staff often cite a case in which the judge said schools are expected to provide a Chevy, not a Cadillac education.  The room I visited was not a Coupe Deville, nor was it Cobalt, more like a nice Chevy Impala.  So how much does that classroom cost?

It's hard to say.  One full-time teacher and four aides would be about $140,000. Services provided by the other adults are based upon the individual education plan for each student.  An educated guess would put the other adults at about $60,000.  Add to that the other costs provided in the KASB study ( ) and you have $375,000; include extra expenses for special transportation requirements and room and equipment needs, and my best estimate is closer to $400,000.  For these five students, at about $12,000 per student, the district receives $72,000 in total state funding. The remaining $328,000 must be made up from the district budget.

The mid-sized district I visited has three of these classrooms. There are thousands of high needs students being served in Kansas schools. Students that up until ten years ago were served in state hospitals were returned home to be educated in their public schools.  Public schools proudly serve all students: your children, your grandchildren, your neighbor’s children, and my friend’s child.  And in my opinion, it is worth every penny. Go visit and see for yourself.