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February 7, 2018

Since the opening of the 2018 Legislative session in Topeka, the buzz has been how the Legislature will respond to the Kansas Supreme Court order to fix the school finance system while being able to balance the budget at the same time.  The Governor’s budget calls for a $200 million dollar increase in educational funding for the FY19, and then an additional $100 million increase each of the next 4 fiscal years.  While at first glance, this is seemingly a significant increase, and let’s just be honest, $600 million dollars is a lot of money; but before we pass judgment or form an opinion on the Governor’s budget proposal, I would first like to point out a few items for you to think about:

Dr. Randy Watson, the Kansas Commissioner of Education, started his tenure as commissioner by visiting 20 different communities across the state holding 287 focus group meetings with around 1700 people ranging from students, parents, educators, business owners, and community members discussing one question:  what are the characteristics, qualities, abilities and skills of a successful 24 year old Kansan.    Dr. Watson learned that while teaching students academic skills are extremely important; it is equally important to teach students non-academic skills as well.  Schools need to focus on the social and emotional growth of students.  Curriculum needs to be re-designed around individualized goals, planning, instruction, and experience, as well as incorporating real-life problems and projects.  Schools need a deeper dive into individual career planning, and establish internships, job shadowing, and work experiences with business and community organizations for students. 

There is more on the list for school redesign but I think you get the picture that schools in Kansas are changing.  Changing for the better.  Schools are redesigning how we educate students, as the world is different today than it was years ago.  Technology has been the catalyst for exponential growth and advancements in our society.  The Kansas State Department of Education’s response to this growth and advancement was to establish a new accreditation and accountability system for public schools that use an educational framework called, “The Five Rs.”  Those 5 Rs are Relationships, Relevance, Responsive Culture, Rigor, and Results.  Within the 5 Rs are several indicators schools are focusing on.  These indicators are:

#1:  Social-Emotional Growth (Social-Emotional learning is the process through which students acquire the knowledge, attitudes, and skills necessary to understand and manage emotions, set and achieve positive goals, feel and show empathy for others and establish and maintain positive relationships.)

#2:  Kindergarten Readiness (the success of each student begins with high-quality, early childhood care and education)

#3: Individual Plan of Study for every student in middle school and high school. 

#4:  High School Graduation (from the first time a student enters kindergarten, every educator, kindergarten through grade 12, shares in the responsibility of preparing that student for success.)

#5:  Civic Engagement (Civic engagement is necessary so students can become active members of vibrant communities.  Students can’t be civically engaged by learning lessons in the classroom about civic engagement, they must themselves be civically engaged.)

#6:  Post-Secondary Success (did you know that according to a study produced by the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce, by 2020, at least 70 percent of all Kansas jobs will require some level of postsecondary education?  This means that 70 percent of all Kansas students will need to obtain some sort of post-secondary training via a technical institution, a two-year college, or a 4-year college.)  If we want Kansas to prosper we have to prepare students in kindergarten through grade 12 with the skillset to continue their education via a post-secondary institution in order to meet the workforce demands in 2020 or else those business will leave Kansas and relocate in a state that is producing the workforce. 

As you can see, all the above is a shift from how education has been approached in the past.  To be successful in this shift, it will require more resources such as social workers, school counselors, family support specialists, instructional coaches, early childhood education programs, classroom resources, technology updates, curriculum changes, and most importantly, we have to be able to attract the best and brightest teachers to stay in Kansas.  Because let’s face it, the right teacher makes all the difference!  However, did you know that Kansas currently ranks towards the bottom in the nation at 42nd out of the 50 states in average teachers’ salaries?  We have to do better than that to attract the best and brightest!

I had a local patron tell me not long ago that school was good enough for him, so it is good enough for kids today.  I asked him when he graduated from high school and he replied in the early 1960’s.  In closing, I want to leave you with a few questions in comparison to think about. 

A 2018 Chevy pickup is different mechanically and technology wise than a Chevy pickup that was new in the early 1960’s.  Mechanics are now technicians, and shops require specialized tools and machinery to diagnose and work on modern day vehicles.  So, would you take your 2018 Chevy pickup to a mechanic to be worked on if the mechanic only had access to tools from the early 1960’s to work on it with? 

Earlier this year, I had a teacher at the John Deere Technician Training Program tell me that there are more computers on a modern day John Deere combine than there were on the first space shuttle!  Technology has improved processes and practices in our agricultural communities that have allowed our farmers and ranchers to meet the needs of our growing populations.  So, would a farmer or rancher be able to function and sustain operations in 2018 with only access to equipment and methodologies form the 1960’s?

As I circle back to the current legislative session taking place in Topeka and the sticker shock I’m sure many of you had when you heard the $600 million dollar figure over 5 years for education, I ask you to think about whether that seemingly big number in the Governor’s budget is a small investment to make for the much needed and necessary changes Kansas is making to improve education.  I believe education is the foundation of a strong economy and education is the foundation of strong communities.   Investing in our children is constructing a foundation Kansas can build a future on!