News that Kansas Senator Jean Schodorf is leaving the Republican Party after her primary election loss has been treated as mostly a political story, which it certainly is. More important, however, is the potential for new policies and laws regarding Kansas schools that hold the promise of helping Kansas schoolchildren and families.
Senator Schodorf’s most notable cause has been education. As chair of the senate education committee, she has been in a position of tremendous influence over education policy in Kansas. We should examine, then, the results of Kansas education policy.
This summer Kansas received a waiver from the main provisions of the federal No Child Left Behind Act. As part of the waiver, Kansas agreed to create a teacher evaluation system that includes student achievement as a significant factor in the evaluation. Many people would probably be surprised to learn that student achievement isn’t already the major factor, perhaps even the only factor, in teacher evaluations. But under Schodorf’s chairmanship of the senate education committee, this isn’t the case.
Related to this is that Kansas ranks low in policies on teacher quality. Plentiful research shows that among the factors that schools have under their control, teacher effectiveness is by far most important. But under Schodorf’s chairmanship of the senate education committee, these important and broad-reaching reforms were not considered. Instead, her committee devoted enormous time and effort to tinkering with minor issues such as teacher tenure policy, itself a harmful policy.
It’s true that performance on the assessments that are under the control of Kansas are rising. But scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) for Kansas students don’t reflect the same trend. Scores on this test, which is given every two years, aren’t rising like the Kansas-controlled test scores. These scores are largely unchanged over the past years.
Senator Schodorf, in her position of chair of the senate education committee, could have asked for an investigation as to why there exists this discrepancy. But she didn’t.
Speaking of test scores: Kansas often proudly claims that its schools rank very well when compared with other states. Compare Kansas with Texas, a state that Kansas school spending boosters like to deride as a state with low-performing schools. But you don’t have to look very hard to realize that these scores are a statistical artifact. It’s an unfortunate fact that minority students do not perform as well on these tests as white students. When you combine this with the fact that Kansas has a relatively small minority population, we can see why Kansas ranks well. In Kansas 69 percent of students are white, while in Texas that number is 33 percent. So it’s not surprising that overall, Kansas outperforms Texas (with one tie) when considering all students in four important areas: fourth and eighth grade reading, and fourth and eighth grade math.
But looking at Hispanic students only, Texas beats or ties Kansas in these four areas. For black students, Texas bests Kansas in all four. Texas does this with much less spending per pupil than Kansas.
Kansas also likes to brag of its high standards for schools. But when compared to other states, Kansas has low standards. The U.S. Department of Education’s National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) has analyzed state standards, and we can see that Kansas has standards that are below most states. The table of figures is available at Estimated NAEP scale equivalent scores for state proficiency standards, for reading and mathematics in 2009, by grade and state. An analysis of these tables by the Kansas Policy Institute shows that few states have standards below the Kansas standards.
This table is from KPI’s report earlier this year titled Removing Barriers to Better Public Education: Analyzing the facts about student achievement and school spending.
The conclusion by NCES is “… most states’ proficiency standards are at or below NAEP’s definition of Basic performance.” KPI, based on simple analysis of the NCES data, concluded: “Kansas is one of those states, with its Reading Proficiency standard set lower than what the U.S. Department of Education considers Basic performance. Math Proficiency levels are above what NAEP considers to be Basic but still well below the U.S. standard for Proficient.” Did Senator Schodorf, in her role as education committee chair, push for increasing Kansas standards? If she did, we didn’t hear of it, and it certainly didn’t become policy or law.
Across the country, charter schools and school choice programs are offering choice and improved educational outcomes to families. While Kansas has charter schools, the charter school law in Kansas is one of the weakest in the nation, and virtually guarantees that public schools won’t face much meaningful competition from charters. School choice in the form of vouchers or tax credits doesn’t exist at all in Kansas. As a result, Kansas public schools face very little of the competitive forces that have been found to spur public schools to improvement across the country. As chair of the senate education committee, Senator Schodorf worked to make sure that charter schools and school choice are not available to Kansas families.
The departure of Senator Schodorf and other moderate senators is a political story. But it presents a chance for Kansas to make some important changes to its schools that are greatly needed. For this important policy reason, we shouldn’t mourn the loss of Schodorf and the other moderates.