Monday, September 26, 2016

Lessons Learned on the School Playground

What kid doesn’t have fond memories of the playground? But who knew that so many life lessons were being learned while we were outside enjoying recess? As I sat in the Supreme Court hearing on school finance last week, several old playground lessons came to mind.

When is tattling not tattling? Nobody likes a tattletale, the incessant whiner who ran to the teacher whenever something didn’t go his or her way. But when it is a matter of someone getting hurt, always go to the adult in charge. It is a common refrain that we need to stop the endless litigation over school finance in Kansas. School districts are portrayed as whiners who are never satisfied. The fact is that when kids are getting hurt, the Supreme Court is the adult in charge. Sometimes schools are left with no choice but to appeal to the courts.

The merry-go-round keeps spinning after you stop pushing. The state’s attorney argued that since student achievement continued to improve in spite of decreasing operational funds, money must not matter. The education process is like the merry-go-round, it continues to advance student learning for a while even after the appropriate funding stops. But it will not continue to turn forever.

In fact, the “Kansas schools are fifth in the nation” quote that was offered more than once at the hearing is not longer accurate. According to KASB research, Kansas has dropped to 10th in the nation since the trial started. The merry-go-round has stopped turning and is now going the wrong direction. It will be even tougher to make up the difference needed to turn our system back in a positive direction.

Put me in coach… Another argument made by the defense was that if we just fire all of the bad principals and teachers, education will improve and it doesn’t cost anything. I remember being picked last for softball at every recess. I possess the eye-hand coordination of a two-month-old puppy. No doubt that when someone struck out or missed a fly ball, my peers would like to have replaced the errant player, but when they looked at the bench and saw me sitting there, well, maybe not so much.

Replacing poor teachers sounds good on paper, but at a time when there are around 300 unfilled teaching positions in Kansas, not so much. It will cost money to improve the profession so that we have a strong bench. Kansas teachers have to be paid based upon the strong production we get compared with other states, or fewer and fewer will choose to go into the profession. That takes a long-term investment in our most important profession.

The teeter-totter reveals that not all kids are the same. It will horrify my older (and taller) sister that she once weighed more than me. That ratio reversed about fourth grade, but until that time she enjoyed luring me onto the teeter totter only to strand me at the top and the leap off, causing me to bottom out quickly. Eventually, I learned to only get on if she agreed to slide forward on the board. This simple adjustment corrected an inequitable system.

The state argued for a similar adjustment to the finance system. They argued that if a third of the kids are not meeting standard, we could simply offer less to the higher-level kids- scoot them a little towards the middle. The example offered questioned whether we really need Advanced Placement courses. Teeter-totter economics are not what Kansans want from their finance system.

Soon the Supreme Court will make a decision about the adequacy of the school finance system. Whatever the decision, in poll after poll, Kansans say they want to provide more resources to their public schools. Kansans want their kids to have a world-class education. The way to end the lawsuits is to simply do what the public wants and our children deserve.

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