June 15, 2012


School Funding Trial Update, 'No Child' Waiver, Evolution Controversy (again)

by Peter Hancock l The Kansas Education Policy Report

Trial Testimony Shifts to Dodge City Schools

(June 14, 2012) The superintendent of Dodge City USD 443 testified Wednesday that budget cuts enacted by the legislature since 2009 have forced his district to increase class sizes, cut back on early childhood education and professional development, and increase fees on families that are among the poorest in the state.

The result, said Alan Cunningham, is that Dodge City schools do not have the resources to provide a suitable education to all of its students.

“Our goal is to prepare all students to be successful so they can be citizens who can participate in a changing world,” Cunningham said. “We can’t do that right now.”

Cunningham said he has worked in the district more than 40 years. During that time, it has gone through dramatic changes that most people would find hard to imagine, largely due to the growth of the meat-packing industry starting in the 1980s.

Before that, Cunningham said, Dodge City was a typical middle class, blue-collar district in western Kansas. It was overwhelmingly white, had few students with special needs and few students living in poverty.

Today, Hispanics make up three quarters of the student population; whites, less than 20 percent. More than half the students (54.1 percent) are English Language Learners. Migrant students — those whose families migrate to find work in the agricultural industry — make up nearly 15 percent.

Cunningham said the only time in his career when the district came close to having the resources needed to adequately teach all students was in years immediately after the Montoy decision in 2005, when Kansas added more than $750 million statewide to the school funding formula.

Dodge City in particular benefited from that because the new funding formula increased the weighting factors for at-risk and ELL students.

During those years the state also increased “equalization” aid, making it easier for low-wealth districts like Dodge City to raise local option budgets and fund capital outlay budgets for big-ticket purchases like building repairs and new equipment.

That enabled Dodge City to, among other things, build a second high school and an additional elementary school — high priority items because of the district’s rapidly growing population.

Cunningham said the increased funding also enabled Dodge City to fund things like after-school programs, pre-school and all-day kindergarten — all of which, he said, helped boost test scores in the district and narrow the achievement gaps between disadvantaged and non-disadvantaged students.

But in 2009, the state began making deep cuts in education spending, largely because of the recession and the sudden drop-off in state revenues. So, when the new elementary school opened, Cunningham said, the district could only afford to hire enough new teachers to fill half its classrooms.

Dodge City has been able to weather the cuts better than most districts, Cunningham said, largely because of its growing population. Still, he said, it has not been able to hire enough new teachers — especially those trained in dealing with ELL students — to keep up with the growth. Class sizes have increased. Enhanced services for at-risk and ELL students have been cut or eliminated.

And while those cuts did not immediately translate into lower test scores or widening achievement gaps, Cunningham said it wouldn’t be long before they do. In fact, he said, scores from the 2012 state assessments will probably start to show those effects.

“I look at funding sort of like an antibiotic for someone who’s sick,” Cunningham said. “You don’t immediately feel better the first time you take the pill, and you don’t immediately get worse when you stop taking them.”

On cross examination, defense attorney Arthur S. Chalmers pointed out that all schools in the Dodge City district are accredited, meaning they are meeting the requirements under state law for school performance. In addition, he said, every building in the district is meeting the “Adequate Yearly Performance” (AYP) benchmarks under the federal No Child Left Behind law. None of the schools is listed as being “on improvement.”

But Cunningham said that’s mainly because sub-group populations are only counted if there are more than 35 individuals in the group. Most buildings, he said, students in particular sub-groups, including African-Americans, and students with disabilities. On a district-wide level, he said USD 443 is listed as “on improvement,” meaning as a district it has failed to meet AYP targets at least two years in a row.

According to information from the Kansas State Department of Education, students with disabilities suffer from the largest achievement gap, with only 57.6 percent scoring proficient or better in reading in the 2011 assessments, and 62 percent scoring proficient or better in math.

In addition, he said, while the state will not release data from the 2012 assessments until next fall, the district has already compiled the numbers for its own students. He said those would begin to show declining test scores and widening achievement gaps.

The court is not hearing testimony Thursday, Friday or next Monday, in part because of scheduling conflicts for some of the judges. The trial will resume Tuesday, June 19, with testimony from former Secretary of Administration Duane Goossen, among others.

Judges Not Impressed by “Project Veritas” Comments

(June 13, 2012) Judges presiding over the ongoing school finance trial said Tuesday they had no interest in hearing any more testimony about comments a key witness had allegedly made during a hidden-camera conversation with an Internet blogger who runs a website called Project Veritas.

“That thing with Mr. (James) O’Keefe, it registers zero with me,” said Judge Franklin Theis, the Shawnee County judge presiding over the three-judge panel hearing the case.

“It doesn’t affect me at all,” echoed Judge Jack Burr of Goodland.

In fact, all three judges have given indications in recent days that they are growing impatient with the slow pace of the trial, and the tendency of attorneys on both sides to dwell for hours on excruciating details of statistical studies.

The comments came during the second day of testimony by a key expert witness for the plaintiffs, Dr. Bruce Baker of Rutgers University in New Jersey. Baker presented a detailed analysis of state funding for public schools in recent years, as well as analysis of how the cost of a suitable education varies by the size of a district and the demographic makeup of its students.

As he was being cross-examined Monday, defense attorney Arthur S. Chalmers tried to introduce a video produced by Project Veritas in which Baker purportedly agreed to engage in a pay-for-play scheme — agreeing to produce reports that would be favorable to the interests of a teachers union in exchange for a fee. Baker flatly denied the allegation and said the video had been selectively edited to give a false impression.

The video was never entered into evidence, but the judges allowed Chalmers to question Baker about it. Then Tuesday, plaintiffs’ attorney Alan Rupe tried to rebut the suggestions. That prompted Judges Theis and Burr to interject that the entire issue carried no weight with them.

What seemed to be of more concern to the judges, especially Theis, was the amount of time being spent dwelling on the excruciating details of Baker’s statistical evidence.

“This seems like such an elaborate dance with all these statistics,” Theis said. “Kansas is not that large of a state. Why do you have such an elaborate system here when you can go right to the source? … Why do you need a statistician to determine what you can find out with a phone call?”

The judges will get their chance to hear directly from educators Wednesday when six officials from Dodge City USD 433 are scheduled to testify.

Deal May Be Near on NCLB Waiver

Officials from the Kansas Department of Education said Tuesday that they are close to reaching an agreement with federal officials that would allow Kansas to receive a waiver from requirements of the No Child Left Behind law.

Under rules set out by the U.S. Department of Education, states can receive a waiver if they demonstrate that they have acceptable strategies in place to improve student achievement, especially among disadvantaged students, and to hold schools and educators accountable for making improvement.

Kansas applied for the waiver in February, along with about two dozen other states, but federal officials raised concerns about two elements of the state’s plan — elements that state officials say now have been all but resolved.

Kansas Education Commissioner Dr. Diane DeBacker said the breakthroughs came in a series of conference calls that occurred just within the last several days.

The first deals with how teachers and principals are evaluated on their job performance. The waiver guidelines require states to include student achievement as a “significant factor” in those evaluations. KSDE plans to develop such a system and have it ready for implementation within two years, but federal officials had been insisting that such a system already be in place as a condition for receiving the waiver.

But state officials say the federal agency has backed away from that demand and are now satisfied that Kansas is already engaged in a process and has a timeline for developing a new evaluation system, known as the Kansas Educator Evaluation Protocol (KEEP).

The second issue dealt with a new accountability system for measuring the progress schools and districts make toward bringing all students up to proficiency in reading and math.

Under No Child Left Behind, schools are required to have 100 percent of their students score proficient or better on standardized tests for reading and math by 2014, just two years away.

Kansas proposed shifting to a more complex system called an “Assessment Performance Index” (API) that would award schools points based on the number of students falling within five different categories of performance: exemplary; exceeds standards; meets standards; approaches standards; and academic warning.

Federal officials had expressed concern that the point system Kansas proposed would “mask over” the problem of low-performing students. They proposed collapsing the top three categories into one so that low-performing students would not be lost in the averages. But state officials insisted on keeping the API system intact, noting among other things that it is also used for determining “Standard of Excellence” awards for schools.

State officials say a compromise is now being negotiated that would allow Kansas to keep the proposed API system as outlined, but to add another requirement that schools reduce the number of students scoring below proficient by 50 percent over six years.

Evolution Controversy Seeping into NextGen Science Standards

There were surprisingly few public comments to the first draft of new science standards that are being developed by a group of 26 states, including Kansas.

But recent media reports that raised the possibility of another debate over the teaching of evolution have now put that issue front and center before the State Board of Education.

“Since I had the momentary indiscretion of sharing some personal thoughts with a reporter a few days ago, this thing has blown out of proportion again, and that was not my intent,” Board member Ken Willard (R-Hutchinson) said during Tuesday’s Board meeting. “But the positive thing that’s come from that is that, while I have not voiced my concern with the framework publicly here, I find that I am not the only one that has those concerns.

Willard is a religious conservative who does not accept the theory of evolution as an explanation for the development of species. He was first elected to the Board in 2002 and has served through the battles since then over how evolution is treated in state science standards.

Last week, when contacted for a story by the Associated Press (http://cjonline.com/news/2012-06-06/kan-headed-another-evolution-debate) about his feelings toward the new standards being developed by a consortium of states, Willard said he found them “very problematic” for describing evolution as an established scientific principle.

Kansas is one of 26 “lead states” working with the National Research Council in developing what are called Next Generation Science Standards (http://www.nextgenscience.org/), which many hope will become a model for science, technology, engineering and math education nationwide.

The process has been underway for more than a year, and until now the controversy over teaching evolution has barely been discussed.

In fact, last month the steering committee coordinating the project released the first public draft of the proposed new standards. According to Matt Krehbiel, a Science Program Consultant with the Kansas Department of Education, the draft elicited only about 8,400 public comments nationwide, including about 63 from people who identified themselves as being from Kansas. And of those, Krehbiel said, virtually none of them raised a concern about teaching evolution. However, state officials have not yet seen or reviewed all the public comments submitted concerning the draft.

According to information on the Next Generation Science Standards website, one of the main concerns the group hopes to address is the fact that the United States lags behind many other industrialized nations in student performance on science exams. One of the goals is to close that gap by benchmarking science education in the U.S. to international standards.

However, since publication of the AP story quoting Willard, the controversy over evolution appears to have “gone viral” and is now becoming a central issue.

“Within an hour after I made those comments I began getting phone calls and I got a lot of emails,” Willard said. “You find out just how much you’re loved when you say something that stirs people up, on this subject in particular.”

Willard’s seat on the Board is not up for election this year. But his seat could become vacant because he has filed to run for the Kansas House in the district being vacated by House Speaker Mike O’Neal, who is retiring. If he wins, Republican precinct committee officials from his district would have to meet to elect a replacement.

Officials say the next draft of the proposed standards should be ready for public review by the end of this year. A final draft may be ready for consideration by the State Board in early 2013.

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