The day has barely started, but Mary Stewart is already worried about one homeless student and others who arrive at her Kansas City, Kan., high school in below-freezing temperatures with no winter coats.
The principal never knows what’s happened at home for these students — when they last ate, when they last slept, when they last were warm. Too often, they come hungry, tired and cold.
“We are ready to almost triage kids as they’re walking in,” Stewart says.
Down the hall in a science room, just a few minutes after classes begin, a student hurries to talk to his teacher.
He has to leave, he says. His mother’s in the hospital and he has to help translate.
He speaks a language rarely heard here. If he can’t translate for his mother, who will?
The teacher, Peggy Porter, understands. This isn’t the first time.
“I would be a horrible person if I didn’t accept it,” she says. “They’re not lying to me. They’ve got real needs that aren’t being met by any other services. I’ve got to find ways to work with it.”
At Wyandotte High School, the students come with challenges that only make the work of educating them that much harder. It’s also where the Kansas school funding debate hits home.
Wyandotte High has around 1,400 students. Administrators say there’s a high refugee population, as well as a number of undocumented students who fear for their futures in the U.S. with a new administration soon to take office in Washington.
It all adds up to higher costs to educate the students. The district says it needs more money, and hopes the Kansas Supreme Court will agree.
The Kansas City, Kan., school district is one of four that sued the state over funding. The others are Dodge City, Hutchinson and Wichita. A decision in the second, and larger, part of the Gannon v. Kansas school finance case could come any day.
The Great Recession hurt school funding, according to the lawsuit. It alleges that moves by state lawmakers in recent years have made the funding situation worse for schools across the state.
The school districts’ legal team offers a wide range when it estimates how much more money is needed to fully fund Kansas schools, from $400 million to more than $1 billion.
And that’s money that Kansas legislators know they don’t have.
Big budget hole
Legislators will already face a $348 million budget shortfall when they return to Topeka on Jan. 9. It’s unclear where the money to boost school funding would come from if the court rules in favor of the school districts.
Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback said in a recent interview that school funding will be the dominant challenge lawmakers face in the months to come. He also lashed out at the idea that he’s anti-education, as some have portrayed him.
State education funding actually has increased during Brownback’s time in office, according to the Kansas State Department of Education.
But the schools’ perspective is that the growth “has been very low by historical standards,” said Mark Tallman, associate executive director of the Kansas Association of School Boards. “Certainly in terms of operating budgets, it has not even kept up with inflation.”
During Brownback’s time in Topeka, lawmakers have thrown aside the old education funding formula, put in place a block grant system, and now have no clear solution on what a new formula will look like when the block grants expire this year.
The lawsuit over school funding looks at two main questions— whether the funding is equitable and whether it is adequate.
On the first point, the court ordered that more money be given to districts such as Kansas City, Kan., to help equalize funding with wealthier districts such as Blue Valley, Olathe and Shawnee Mission.
Soon, lawmakers will have to deal with the outcome of the larger section of the case, the adequacy portion. That could further complicate the education funding debate within the Kansas Legislature.
School funding is a complex mix of federal, state and local money. The numbers can be misleading, education officials say.
For example, the Kansas City, Kan., district’s total expenditures for 2015-2016 were roughly $298 million and per-pupil expenditures were $14,523, according to the state. In Blue Valley, the total was $278 million and per-pupil was $12,903.
Tallman said the Kansas City, Kan., district needs more money because there’s an understanding that it costs more to educate its students.
“It just comes down to, those kids tend to come to school from more disadvantaged backgrounds,” Tallman said. “They come to school with less of a support structure in place from their family.
“A school like Kansas City is getting more than a school like Blue Valley because we have for many years now recognized that those students cost more and have already added more dollars.”
Patty Logan, a Johnson County parent who has advocated for better education funding with the group Stand Up Blue Valley, said she understands that the students in Kansas City, Kan., may cost more to educate than students in Blue Valley.
“We want every student and every school district in the state to get equitable and adequate funding,” Logan said. “We don’t want Blue Valley to get well-funded at the expense of anyone else and we don’t want anyone else to get well-funded at the expense of Blue Valley.”
Funding issues have meant larger class sizes and a loss of good teachers from Kansas to Missouri, said Alan Rupe, the attorney for the districts that sued. He said it’s also grown the achievement gap for those students who struggle in class.
Even Johnson County schools have had to deal with inadequate funding, Rupe said.
“I’m afraid we’re letting another generation slip by the wayside,” he said.
The state has argued in court that Kansas students are doing well, and more money doesn’t mean better results.
Brownback said not enough money is going to classrooms, and too much has been spent on administrative costs.
“That’s precisely not where people want the money to go,” he said.
Brownback blamed the old school finance formula, and local decisions, for the perception that schools aren’t getting the funding they need.
“We’ve had systems that have really (encouraged) people to build new buildings, particularly in KCK, when most people want the money in the classroom and for teachers,” Brownback said.
But David Smith, spokesman for the Kansas City, Kan., school district, said students in poorer areas should get the same educational opportunities as those in wealthier districts.
“To say that the kids in KCK don’t deserve quality facilities and facilities that work for the 21st century, that’s what we’re going to do for our kids,” Smith said. “That’s what the kids across the state deserve. They don’t need to go to school in a building that’s 102 years old. … For some reason, we end up as a target by those who ultimately don’t seem to want to spend money on public education, particularity if it’s for our kids.”
State Sen. Jim Denning, an Overland Park Republican, said no matter how it rules, the Kansas Supreme Court will have to give lawmakers a “long runway.”
He said the block grant concept, which essentially froze funding levels, could be extended one more year and let lawmakers work on a new formula that could take effect in 2018.
“I don’t think we’re going to run into trouble if we keep it in place, or some components in place, while we sort out our tax policy and all these other budgetary issues,” Denning said. “I really don’t see any other way around it.”
Tough times for historic school
Wyandotte High School was built during the Great Depression with a mixture of New Deal public works money and local funds, according to filings with the National Register of Historic Places. When it opened its doors in the fall of 1937, it had 2,650 students.
The same filings say it was once called “the best equipped school in the nation.” In the waning years of the Depression, the school was a job creator and bright spot in the metro Kansas City area.
But the passage of time hasn’t been easy for the aging school.
Although it has received more state funding in recent years, the money hasn’t kept up with the costs of teaching at-risk students and those learning English, the district says.
A breakdown of 2016 testing data from the state shows that 89 percent of the students at Wyandotte were testing below their grade level in math. The same data showed 80 percent of students were behind in English.
Statewide, both those numbers drop into the low to mid 20 percent range for Kansas students.
Stewart, the principal, says she struggles to keep new teachers who often leave for better pay and less stress in other districts.
But Paula Nickum, an English teacher at the school, decided to stay. She’s taught there for 34 years and went to school in Kansas City, Kan.
“They’re good kids,” Nickum says. “They deserve that chance. And we can’t give it to them.”
So what she does here, she says, is “aim at the middle and pray.”
“The kids that are bright, you hope don’t die of boredom,” she says. “And the kids down here, you hope somehow you can pair kids up to help each other. That’s what you hope for.”
A step in the right direction?
By the end of the day, milk cartons and other trash litter the floors of hallways around the school. There aren’t many janitors to clean up the mess.
The kids here have typical high school complaints — the food is bad, the teachers rag on them.
It’s harder for them to notice problems pointed out by teachers. One teacher says she’d be grateful if she could have a sink that actually worked in her science classroom. Another says the college prep at Wyandotte lags behind wealthier school districts in Johnson County. And another just says she’d like to have a copier that wasn’t broken.
Adriana Sabado, a senior, wants to become an athletic trainer. The teachers help her here, she says.
“They want to at least get you up to passing grades,” Sabado says. “To make you pass a semester, make you want to graduate, figure out what you want to do later in life once you’re done in high school.”
Carlos Baez, a 17-year-old student, says it can be hard for him to watch kids who go to school in Johnson County.
“They just, they probably have more privileges than us,” Baez says.
The concerns Stewart felt in the morning at the school’s front door linger through the day . Which students are cold, hungry, lacking the attention they deserve.
Stewart knows tomorrow morning those worries will return.
More money, more help, would be nice. But she isn’t holding her breath. The school has to figure out what it can do with what it has.
She’d like it if the ZIP code a kid comes from doesn’t determine their quality of education.
Stewart thinks a ruling in the school districts’ favor could do that. At the least, she thinks, it would be a step in the right direction.
“It’s not like these kids are somebody else’s,” she says. “They’re Kansas kids and we’re not investing in them. … Aren’t we kind of writing our ticket to what we want our future to be?”