June 8, 2012


Day Three of the School Finance Trial

No pencil Left Behind: Teachers scrounge for basic supplies, sometimes paying out of their own pockets

by Peter Hancock l The Kansas Education Policy Report

(TOPEKA – June 6, 2012) Rabiha Hatridge, a special education teacher at Wichita East High School, teaches reading to freshmen and sophomores who come into her class with second- or third-grade reading skills. Her job is to bring those students up to a high school reading level so that one day they can graduate.

With so much ground to make up in so little time, Hartridge says she can’t afford to waste valuable class time sending students to the office for failing to bring a pencil and paper to class.

“I go through 15 to 30 pencils a day,” she said.

She also gathers them up off the floor in her classroom after her students leave. She gathers up dropped and discarded pencils in the halls. And when that isn’t enough, she reaches into her pocket to buy more herself.

“The rule in my class is, No Pencil Left Behind,” Hartridge said Wednesday as she testified for the plaintiffs in the school finance trial.

That line produced chuckles from the lawyers in the case, as well as the panel of three judges presiding over the trial. But Hatridge and a parade of other teachers who testified Wednesday made it clear that the question is not just about pencils and paper.

But the question the judges will ultimately decide is whether the state is legally obligated to pay for things, which, arguably, are the responsibility of students and their parents to provide, and whether the failure to do so amounts to a violation of the state’s constitutional duty to make “suitable provision for finance” of public schools.

That may turn out to be one of the most troublesome questions the court has to answer in the case: Where exactly are the limits of the state’s responsibility to make sure that even the most disadvantaged children have the same opportunity to receive a quality education as children from upper-income suburban backgrounds.

Hatridge, along with a parade of other witnesses who testified Wednesday, made it clear that the issue isn’t just about pencils and paper. They said it’s about the difficulty — even impossibility — of providing an education that meets all of the state’s standards to students who lack the most basic levels of family and social support, and doing it in schools that cannot afford to buy basic supplies, let alone pay competitive salaries or provide teachers with the necessary professional development.

Kim Morrisey, a physical education teacher at Dodge Literacy Magnet School in Wichita, testified how she keeps a locker full of tennis shoes that she picks up at garage sales, along with socks she buys at discount stores, for the students who come to school, even in winter, with only flip-flops on their feet. She also noted the school allows her only $150 a year for sports equipment for a school of 467 students — barely enough for six “mediocre” basketballs.

And Stephanie Sorenson, a second grade teacher at Stony Point South Elementary in Kansas City USD 500, testified about teachers doing outside fundraising and even reaching into their own pockets so their students can take the kind of field trips that students from more affluent districts in neighboring Johnson County would consider routine.

During cross-examination, Arthur S. Chalmers, the attorney defending the state, tried to walk a narrow line between being respectful and appreciative of the teachers, while arguing that it’s not necessarily the state’s responsibility to fund everything that some might consider desirable in an education.

He argued that the state’s duty is to fund those services and programs required under the state’s Quality Performance Accreditation system, or QPA — the standard by which the Kansas State Department of Education determines whether schools are meeting their obligations.

The most pointed exchange on that subject came when he cross-examined Edwin Hudson, chief officer of Human Resources in the Kansas City district.

Hudson had testified about USD 500’s notoriously high turnover rate among teachers. Before the next school term begins, he said he’ll need to fill upwards of 180 teaching positions, much of that due to teachers leaving for jobs in neighboring suburban districts that offer better working conditions and salaries that are $4,000 to $10,000 a year higher than KCK offers.

He said USD 500 has not been able to fund the step increases set forth in the district’s salary schedule for the last four years.

“Did you know that there are industries where employees have had to take salary cuts, and employees have been laid off,” Chalmers asked during cross-examination. “In Wichita, we’ve got a major manufacturer of aircraft (Hawker Beechcraft) that is going into bankruptcy and eliminating jobs.”

“I feel badly about them,” Hudson replied. “But I also feel badly about individuals who are below the market compared to their competitors who are not able to get an increase.”

During this past school year alone, Hudson said, KCK lost 30 teachers in the middle of the school year, even though doing so meant they had to pay the district “liquidated damages” of $1,000 for breach of contract. In at least one instance, he said, a district in Johnson County that recruited a teacher away from KCK mid-year agreed to pay that penalty on the teacher’s behalf.

When asked by plaintiff attorney Alan Rupe why the district didn’t just absorb the attrition to make up for the funding cuts, Hudson said that was no longer possible. “We have classrooms now that are empty, without a teacher,” Hudson said.

Under cross-examination, however, Hudson conceded that those classes are not truly empty, without any teacher in charge. In most cases, he said, the district assigns long-term substitutes to those classes, even though the substitute may not be fully qualified to teach in that subject area.

Chalmers, however, argued that a teacher is a teacher, whether under contract or acting as a substitute. And that by placing a licensed, credentialed substitute in the class, the district and the state have met their obligations under state statutes and the Kansas Constitution.

© 2012, Hancock Publishing Co. All rights reserved. Reposted here with permission.