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Tackling education reform in Kansas

Published on -2/12/2013, 10:48 AM

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One of the key issues in the Kansas Legislature this year is the subject of education reform. In January, a panel of district court judges issued a ruling regarding the adequacy of school funding, and that is one of the driving forces in the discussion. Additionally, significant turnover in the Legislature has led many to look at our system of education with fresh eyes. Several sub-topics are simultaneously percolating.

Constitutional amendment: According to Article 6B of the Kansas Constitution, "The Legislature shall make suitable provision for finance of the educational interests of the state." In spite of that explicit language, in recent decades Kansas has been involved in three court suits on the question of suitability. The fact courts have gotten involved has created great consternation among many in the Legislature, and this year there is an effort to stop that cycle of lawsuits and get the courts out of school funding.

Sen. Jeff King, R-Independence, has introduced a resolution to add the following sentence to Article 6B: "The financing of the educational interests of the state is exclusively a legislative power under Article 2 of the Constitution of the state of Kansas and as such shall be established solely by the legislature." Some believe this stronger language would make it much harder for the courts to become involved in the future. However, if this is true, those of us who live in rural Kansas should be very concerned. As the population shifts from rural to urban, we are increasingly outnumbered in the Legislature. So this raises the possibility some future Kansas Legislature could decide to enact school finance legislation that disadvantages rural school children. We cannot allow that to happen. In a democracy, the judicial system exists to provide justice for all, including protecting the rights of the minority from the rule of the majority. The principle of equitable funding is central to the goal of providing all Kansas children with the best possible education, and placing the responsibility exclusively in the hands of an increasingly urbanized Legislature would present grave threat to rural Kansas.

School vouchers: Our system of free enterprise is founded on the principle that free and open competition is a good thing. Certainly that is true for private enterprise, and some are suggesting Kansas should insert competition into its public education system in order to produce greater outcomes and reduce costs. I believe we should strive to foster competition among educators, individual attendance centers and school districts. But some in the Legislature are proposing to go further -- to issue school vouchers whereby the state's current annual cost of educating a student would be paid to that family so the student could attend a private school.

It is easy to imagine that might create some competition, but remember the playing field is very uneven. Private schools, by their very nature, can select who attends. So the result would be the best and the brightest would migrate to private schools while those students who are more costly to educate would left behind in public schools with a shrinking level of funding. How can that be good for Kansas?

Interestingly, the voucher idea is surfacing at the same time some are beginning to talk about further school consolidation. In rural Kansas, where entire districts might have enrollment of 100 or less, and the closest attendance center outside of the district could be 30 miles away or more, a new private school springing up to offer "competition" doesn't make much sense. The 2010 Census revealed 77 of Kansas' 105 counties are losing population. A voucher system that encourages new private schools and draws students away from already-shrinking public schools would threaten the very existence of many rural schools in Kansas.

I have high respect for the private schools throughout Kansas and the great work their dedicated educators perform. But in order for Kansas' system of excellent public education to remain strong, the private education system must remain private. Public dollars must always be reserved entirely for public education.

Don Hineman represents the 118th House District. dhineman@st-tel.net

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