A panel discussion hosted last week by the Freedom to Learn Kansas Political Action Committee serves as another reminder that many so-called education supporters really support the system, but not students. The discussion moderated by State Senator Cindy Holscher featured a retired school superintendent, a director of special education, and a retired teacher.
Most of the discussion focused on schools not having enough money. None of it was about student achievement until I posed this question to the panel: given that there are more high school students below grade level than are proficient, and that achievement is getting worse, how many years will it take to get all students to grade level if the public education system is left to its own devices?” The panel and the audience reacted as though someone threw something nasty in the punchbowl.
It’s a fair question. The Kansas Supreme Court, in ordering a $1 billion funding increase, said the fact that a quarter of all students were below grade level proved that schools are underfunded. Now, about a third of students are below grade level.
But those who responded offered excuses and made inaccurate claims.
Senator Holscher told the audience that “extremist” groups are trying to close public schools and privatize education. There may be a handful of people who honestly think that, but the senator knows that to be a false claim. Instead of attempting to refute the facts on student achievement, she told the audience to ignore me (‘just so you know, he’s a lobbyist’), which prompted the boos and hisses she sought.
Retired Spring Hill Superintendent Wayne Burke said Kansas’s achievement on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) cannot be compared to other states because Kansas has higher academic standards. Those making such claims are either repeating what they’ve been told or are consciously deceiving parents. I wasn’t allowed to refute his claim, but the facts clearly show he is wrong.
Students in all states take the same NAEP test based on the same NAEP standards. State standards that determine how state assessment scores are reported have no bearing on the NAEP test results. Burke also claimed that it’s misleading to compare states’ NAEP changes over the years because some states like Florida started at lower levels, which can lead to higher percentage changes, but that isn’t what I said. My point was that states like Florida have improvement that far exceeds the national average, but proficiency in Kansas declined.
Reading proficiency for low-income 4th-graders in Florida – arguably the kids most in need of assistance – jumped from 12% to a best-in-the-nation 28% between 1998 and 2019. The national average improved from 13% to 21%, but proficiency declined in Kansas, from 22% to 20%.
It’s also noteworthy that achievement in Kansas declined despite very large funding increases, and that Florida posted this remarkable improvement while spending about $5,000 per student less than Kansas.
Freedom to Learn PAC opposes equal opportunity
The purpose of the FTL PAC meeting seemed primarily to be a ‘get out the vote’ effort for candidates who want to increase school funding and oppose accountability measures and equal opportunity provided through school choice. The importance of voting for the ‘right’ candidates was stressed during the meeting and again at its conclusion.
Holscher said Freedom to Learn opposes ‘inequality’ but every position she and others took opposes equal opportunity.
For example, she said FTL PAC supports choice, but it was clear that the choice she and others support is merely buying a house in a preferred district. Open enrollment, which allows students to attend a public district of their choice regardless of where they live, was openly opposed. The panelists who spoke about the issue basically said they don’t want students coming to their schools if their parents cannot afford to live in the district.
And that tracks at least with the sentiment of the Olathe and Blue Valley districts. Their superintendents told the Legislature that open enrollment would bring them undesirable students.
Freedom to Learn PAC certainly doesn’t want parents to learn the truth about student achievement, as evidenced by the vitriol and rude behavior directed at anyone sharing facts during the meeting and on their Facebook page. Panelists spoke in generalities of ‘excellent’ schools, but they carefully avoided mentioning specific achievement levels. They said only teachers are qualified to speak about student achievement statistics. Senator Holscher basically said only parents of young children are qualified to be senators, noting that only four senators have children in public school.
The good news is that not everyone in attendance was willing to think as they were instructed. People who privately contacted me with questions showed genuine interest in hearing what others have to say. One said she didn’t agree with everything I mentioned but wanted additional information so she could reach her own informed opinion.
And that’s the way it should be.