Yesterday a business group hosted a luncheon where leaders of USD 259, the Wichita public school district, made short presentations and took questions from the audience. Overall, the event produced little in the way of new information for those who follow school district affairs even casually. Events like this, however, provide a useful measure of the attitudes of school district leaders.
Speaking first, Wichita School Board President Barb Fuller mentioned eleven years of “consecutive student achievement.” Since 2000, she said achievement has risen 20 percent in reading, and 25 percent in math.
In her overview, board member Lanora Nolan complained of a “budget decrease that puts us back five years in funding.” When questioned on this claim, Nolan said she didn’t have the figures in front of her. Board member Lynn Rogers jumped in and quoted the base state aid figures, insisting that these figures are lower now than in the past. He also said that some items are included in the budget in recent years that weren’t included in the past.
School spending supporters across Kansas focus on base state aid per pupil as though it was the only source of school funds. Currently base state aid per pupil (at least according to my reading of Hawver’s Capitol Flash) is $4,218. Yet, the Wichita school district receives funding that allows it to spend over $13,000 per pupil.
Followers of school finance in Kansas, of course, know that spending, no matter how measured, has been growing very rapidly in recent years, both in the Wichita school district, and in the state as a whole. See KNEA call for action overstates case, misleads Kansans for an illustration.
Follow-on questions elicited explanations by Rogers and others that illustrated the principle that USD 259 operates on: outsiders who question the school district never understand what’s really going on.
There is, it appears, a group of super-knowledgeable insiders who are the only people who truly understand Wichita and Kansas school finance and other matters of school district operation. Even the Wichita school district itself is sometimes short on this knowledge, as last year Linda Jones, the chief financial officer for USD 259, postponed a presentation on an issue that John Todd and I raised until she could “receive clarifications from the state.”
This, of course, works to the advantage of the Wichita school district. Citizens who attempt to get involved in any way except as unabashed supporters are quickly frustrated. The district’s attitudes towards citizens are illustrated in my posts Wichita public schools: Open records requests are a burden and In Wichita, Don’t Take Photographs of the School Administration Building!
One question from the audience reminded the board that a business group’s recent survey showed dissatisfaction with recent Wichita school graduates. This produced a flurry of excuses — and some reasons — from board member Connie Dietz and Superintendent John Allison. Excuses mentioned included language difficulties, poverty, homeless students, social issues such as hungry students, and problems with parents.
The superintendent went on to say that “everyone has a different definition of what’s twenty-first century skills.” He did say that we’re finally coming together on a definition of what skills are needed.
Regarding No Child Left Behind, Allison said that the program is based on an exam given on one day to all students, and much depends on that one exam. The Kansas state test may not measure the real-world abilities needed to apply the knowledge learned in class. He said we need to “reduce the one-shot type of assessment of where we are with our students and whether our schools are being successful.”
He made an appeal for more funding from the legislature, and several times mentioned that “we all have to work together” and that we must have a “joint effort.”
A question about the test scores reported by the Wichita school district as compared to scores reported by the federal National Assessment of Educational Progress elicited these remarks by board president Fuller: The NAEP tests only a sample of students, not all students. Kansas does very well on these tests compared to other states. Allison remarked that the two assessments — the Kansas state and federal tests — test different things. Kansas does not align their assessment to NAEP. Districts align their curriculum to the state exam. They’re two different exams, not necessarily testing the same things, he said.
This seems to be an admission of “teaching to the test,” which is a problem that almost everyone admits exists. For more information on this issue, see Are Kansas school test scores believable?
I didn’t get to ask a question, but I’ve posted them at Questions for Wichita school district.