There was a time when foreign language instruction in the elementary schools was part of the program at the Shawnee Mission School District.
Thanks to an absurd Kansas school finance formula, budget restraints forced that to be dropped. Now, if an elementary school’s parents want foreign languages taught, they have to run bake sales and auctions to help pay the teacher.
That’s why gutting the formula and starting from scratch — with temporary lump-sum block grants to tide schools over — was the right thing to do. And thanks to the increased funding through the block grant, it appears Shawnee Mission may be able finally to offer all-day kindergarten without charging parents thousands of dollars a year.
Who knows? Foreign languages in elementary schools could be next.
As I wrote recently, one of the consequences of the 1992 formula was to drag some districts down so that all schools throughout the state would become equal.
That got a lot of reader reaction.
Most wondered why Shawnee Mission should get to have foreign languages in its elementary schools, if, say, Galena, Kan., could not?
If you go by the policies of the teachers union in Kansas, you would subscribe to the notion that all schools in the state should be equal, even if it means some districts are deprived of their desire to exceed statewide standards.
That is a very liberal interpretation of the Kansas Constitution. Nowhere does it say schools must be equal. It says the state must provide a “suitable” education.
When the new formula is drafted, there is a simple solution to this complex problem. And Johnson County legislators should not be satisfied with anything less: It is to fund all schools in the state suitably — even better than suitably.
Why not fund them with the highest quality the state can possibly afford? (Yes, that means raising the aid-per-pupil levels back to their historic highs.)
And then allow each district to raise additional funds without any cap, so long as the school board recommends the increase and patrons approve of the increased funding through a vote.
Currently, there is a hybrid of that plan, called the Local Option Budget. But there’s a problem with this approach, which says a district is only allowed to raise just so much local funding by a certain percentage. That’s an arbitrary limit.
If Shawnee Mission, or any other districts, determine, for example, that they want two foreign language teachers in each elementary school — one to teach Spanish and one to teach Chinese — that should be the prerogative of the patrons. It should not, in effect, be ruled out by the whims of the Legislature’s formula or by pressures from outside interest groups, such as the teachers union.
I know this flies in the face of Jonathan Kozol’s book, “Savage Inequalities.” Kozol wrote that the local property tax for schools is evil because some districts with more wealth can raise local funds much easier than those that are disadvantaged.
But, you see, to buy into Kozol’s philosophy is to fall into the trap that some districts would need to be dumbed-down to have the money available to bring other districts up.
That’s precisely what the now-extinct formula was created to do.
Gov. Sam Brownback recognizes the flaw, and in his first campaign for governor, he called for lifting all caps on local school funding. That means there may be a very powerful voice that can nudge the Legislature in that direction.
There will be resistance, of course. Rural legislators have balked at lifting the cap. Some oppose it because they think that would be unfair. Others oppose it because they fear if wealthier districts were able to raise their own funding without limits, legislators from those areas would become complacent about statewide school funding, and, thus, rural schools might suffer.
Those fears may or may not be valid. No one knows for certain. What we do know is the prior formula held back some school districts from providing the kind of education patrons wanted, and that is totally unfair.
With Johnson County legislators holding many leadership positions, this is the perfect time to insist “no more caps.” Give the freedom back to local patrons who can, if they want, seek standards that are whatever they can imagine.
To reach Steve Rose, longtime Johnson County columnist, send email to firstname.lastname@example.org.