Winter storms mean many sleepless nights for school superintendents and their staffs. Making the decision about whether or not to have school in session brings criticism regardless of the end result. There are always good arguments on both sides. Earlier this month, after a night of blowing winds and hearing snowplows preparing the roads, I went out to several bus stops. I wanted to talk to parents and students, and get their thoughts on my decision. It wasn’t that I wanted them to agree with me; I really wanted to hear what they thought. I believe every leader needs to listen to as many voices as possible, in order to make the best decisions.
Now some decisions, like snow days, have a short-term impact, while others can change the entire landscape. The decisions we make now about the quality of education that each child in Kansas receives are certainly long lasting, landscape altering, adult moments with implications for our children.
Earlier this month, while pushing, plowing and trudging through the snow, we learned about the Governor’s recommendations to reduce state funding to schools and classrooms, both for the current school year and the next. The news wasn’t a surprise, yet somehow the biting sub-zero wind is still a shock, even when you know it’s coming. The proposal means a loss of millions of dollars to support schools in my district.
Communities are being told education receives too much of the state tax revenue. It is being suggested that each community should be allowed to fund the type of education desired for their children. All of this may look right on the surface. However, where I struggle with “let the communities decide” is that we all know that the economic resources available to different communities are not equal.
For many communities, there is no possible way to increase local taxes in order to provide more local spending on schools. The resources in those communities just don’t exist. Are we about to make decisions that reinforce a situation that those that have, get more, and those that don’t, fall even farther behind?
Our Founders realized a well-educated citizenry was vital to economic development (not to mention democracy). In fact, Article VI of the Kansas Constitution says that the legislature must provide funding for a “suitable” education. It is the term “suitable” that is at the heart of the local control issue. Some suggest that once we define “suitable,” then the state will provide funding for those core areas within the suitable definition. Anything more than what is included in the definition would be up to the local community to provide. Play this out for a moment with me. Will arts be in the definition of suitable? What will suitability mean for our special needs populations? Since we know that some students require additional resources to get them to high levels of achievement, will “suitable” include those additional resources? Are we prepared to create a system of the haves and the have-nots? Doesn’t every child in Kansas deserve an excellent and quality education?
We will make it through the winter no matter how harsh, counting the days until spring. At the same time, we are in serious economic times, where our decisions will reveal what we believe about quality lives for all Kansans. Important decisions have to be made. Our state budget must be balanced. What will our decisions be as Kansans during a time of declining fiscal resources? If I could be assured that as much involvement would be given to the issue of “suitable” education as is given to a superintendent on a snow day, I would have faith we could make the best decision for our children. It will take many of us to stand up and brave the elements for our children’s voices to be represented. Remember, “it’s up to us” to shape our children’s futures, and I encourage us to get involved and to do so soon.