Brownback paves plan for Kansas education reform

Last week near Emporia Sam Brownback, surrounded by Kansas educators and legislators, laid out the start of his plan for improving Kansas education if he is elected governor.

His opponents in the race for Kansas Governor are Reform Party candidate Ken Cannon, Libertarian Andrew Gray, and Democrat Tom Holland. Mark Parkinson, the incumbent, decided not to run.

In his remarks, Brownback said that education is “primary function of the state.” While Kansas has excellent schools, he said that more innovation is needed.

In the area of teachers, Brownback wants more mentoring opportunities available to young teachers. He supports a master teacher plan that offers higher salaries to teachers who “provide models of excellence within their schools.” He also called for alternative teacher certification programs that allow those who did not follow the traditional teacher education and certification path to become teachers.

On funding, Brownback said that Kansas school funding formula needs revision. He called for an end to school finance litigation, saying that school finance is the responsibility of the legislature, local school boards, and voters, but not the courts. A focus of a new funding formula will be on getting dollars into the classroom, he added.

One of the five key benchmarks in Brownback’s administration will be fourth grade reading achievement. He cited National Assessment of Educational Progress scores that indicate 28 percent of fourth-graders fail to achieve a “basic” score. “If you can’t read, your world starts closing in around you. But if you can read your world starts opening up,” he said. Fourth grade is a key time to measure reading, he added.

He also called for a refocused emphasis on career and technical education, citing a wind turbine program at Cloud County Community College. With innovative programs like this, he said it is unacceptable that any child would drop out of school.

Brownback said that it is crucial that we find ways to support our higher education system. He said he would highlight and support the work of community and technical colleges, stabilize funding for public universities, support the national cancer institute designation at KU, building the national bio and agri-defense facility at KSU, the Kansas Polymer Research Center at Pittsburg State University, and the National Center for Aviation Research at Wichita State University.

In response to a question, Brownback said he is not looking to redefine the state’s responsibility for funding education as mandated by the Kansas Constitution. He said he wants to get more money into the classroom. The disputes we’ve had should not be resolved by the courts, he added. The percentage has not been as high as he thinks it could be.

He added that if local taxpayers vote to spend more on local schools, he would support that and allow them to do that. Currently the local option budget formula places a limit on how much local districts can add to what the state allocates.

Continuing, Brownback said the problem with school funding is the Kansas formula. The money is not getting in the classroom, as there are too many “nooks and crannies” in the formula. He would focus on renovating the formula, he added.

Another question mentioned two reforms that some states are using and the Obama administration supports — charter schools and teacher merit pay — and noted that these reforms are absent from the plan presented today. Brownback replied that the master teacher program is a form of increased pay for highly qualified and gifted teachers. On charter schools, Brownback said that additional proposals may be rolled out, and that he didn’t want to lay out everything in one day.

The complete press release announcing the plan may be read at the Brownback campaign website.

Commentary

If we wonder why conservatives are not fully gung-ho for Sam Brownback, the education plan provides a few reasons why. The two missing reforms asked about (the questioner was me) — charter schools and teacher merit pay — are popular with conservatives, but vigorously opposed by the existing Kansas education establishment, especially the teachers union.

The master teacher pay plan proposed by Brownback is a long away from merit pay. Under a master teacher plan, it seems like a relatively small number of teachers would be rewarded. Merit pay usually means that all teachers are paid according to their effectiveness, as is the case with most workers, especially professionals.

I didn’t get a chance to ask another question about another reform battle that is being waged: teacher tenure reform. But it seems like the relatively meek reforms proposed by Brownback indicate a candidate who would not be willing to take on the teachers unions over the issue of tenure.

Brownback’s reliance on the NAEP scores as a measure of student achievement is refreshing, as the Kansas school establishment would like to ignore this test. The NAEP is a more rigorous test than the Kansas-administered tests. According to figures at the Kansas State Department of Education, in 2009 87.2 percent of Kansas fourth graders were reading at a level the department considers “at or above standard.” This number has been increasing at the same time the NAEP score are mostly flat. Brownback didn’t talk about this discrepancy, but if he is willing to advocate for an honest measurement of Kansas schoolchildren, that would be a big step.

Brownback’s advocacy for allowing local school districts to vote for more school spending is sure to be vigorously opposed unless the money is “equalized.” In the Kansas House this year, there was a proposal to let counties charge an additional sales tax to be given to the school districts in the county. A Johnson County — a large, wealthy county — legislator proposed the measure, which was vigorously opposed by counties without Johnson county’s wealth. If some of the money raised by a Johnson county sales tax was shipped to poorer counties through the equalization formula, the opposition would disappear, almost certainly.

An interesting commentary on the coverage of Brownback and Holland and their education proposals is at the Kansas Republican Assembly blog: Analyze this: Opinion masquerading as news.

More about Brownbacks plan from the Kansas Education: Public Policy in Kansas and Beyond blog is at Sen. Brownback offers weak tea of reforms.


2 thoughts on “Brownback paves plan for Kansas education reform”

  1. Not much of that sounds “conservative” to me but we must take into acount that when in Rome do as the Romans do. When you are surrounded by the teachers union it might be suicidal to talk about the “hard choices”.

  2. The public school system is a plank of communism. All that seems to be proposed is throwing money on a fire. Privatize the schools and watch the grades go way up.

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