By RON PRESTON
State Representative John Barker (left) and Senator Tom Arpke (right) visit with McKinley Elementary Principal Tom Schwartz before a USD 435 school board meeting when the two area legislators discussed education issues in Kansas. (Photo by Ron Preston)
Representative Barker, Senator Arpke discuss education issues with Abilene BOE
By RON PRESTON
State Senator Tom Arpke, R-Salina, and House of Representative member John Barker, R-Abilene, opened with remarks on the Kansas Legislature’s updates concerning educational issues and pending bills. They met with the Abilene Unified School District 435 Board of Education during a special meeting at the district office Saturday morning.
Senator Arpke began by saying, “10 days to go,” meaning that there are 10 days of the regular session before the veto session of the legislature.
Both Senator Arpke and Representative Barker spoke to the school board about the remaining issues facing the legislature before adjournment with some of those being the Governor’s tax plan for the state and the state budget. They both agreed that with those two issues remaining, the legislators are in for some extra long days ahead to finalize these issues before the adjournment.
“Basically what we are doing now is working on the bills that have come over from the House and they are assigned to the different committees in the Senate,” said Senator Arpke.
“There are some bills that are just being heard now: the tax plan and budget. So we really have no way to move forward with the budget until the tax plan is finalized, because that gives us our marching orders, the revenue that we are going to have to work with,” Arpke said.
“There are many differences between the Senate’s version of the planned budget versus the House’s proposed budget and so the debate will be quite interesting,” he said.
“I’m actually looking forward to that and I won’t miss one of those meetings. The education part, K-12, is $5.27 billion dollars and is 63 per cent of our budget. It is extremely important to me, as I am the vice-chairman of the Senate Education Committee.
“My position is we will not do anything to reduce the educational budget this year and look at slight increases next year in terms of K-12,” said Arpke.
Representative Barker spoke on his committee assignments, in particular the audit committee.
“We’ve just posted two school districts audits and just passed a bill in the House and sent to the Senate, allowing for three additional audits of school districts,” said Barker.
Barker presented Superintendent Dr. Denise Guy with the results of the two school district audits.
“Very interesting. The auditors do performance audits and present back to the Superintendent in front of the committee,” Barker stated, after being asked about the results of the audits.
“You may want to volunteer to have an audit; you may not. They are pretty critical but they find savings, $150,000 in one spot, and $200,000 in another spot. Many find it very helpful in some areas,” said Barker.
Representative Barker is not on any House education committees but referenced the fact of the friendship and cooperation of legislators keeping each other informed of issues.
“You can’t be everywhere all the time,” stated Barker.
One of Barker’s friendships in the legislature is Shanti Gandhi, R-Topeka, who is very passionate about the state’s standards and rankings against other states, “If we’re 37th, why stop at 36th, why not be number one?” Barker said.
He also commented on a web site, Educational Weekly, where legislative information and other educational information presented to him are posted.
Barker also discussed issues with KPERS, one of the committees that he does sit on.
KPERS, which involves teacher retirement funds, has had some problems and at this point it has over $6 billion dollars of unfunded actuaries and it could go as high as $8 billion. Barker noted that the state is looking at several issues surrounding KPERS.
Superintendent Guy and the school board members questioned both Arpke and Barker on the status of Common Core or College to Career legislation.
Representative Barker explained the Common Core legislation is still in House committee and that it likely would not make it out of committee this year. Senator Arpke agreed but added that it would be back next year.
“We are three years into the Common Core program and as whole we are excited about it because it raises the bar,” Guy said. “We are scoring between 80-90 per cent on state assessments all the way through and when you get to that level, you still want to raise the bar more,” commented Guy.
“As a whole, as a district, we are excited to move forward. The opportunities are there to problem - solve and get into critical thinking and higher levels of thought, these types of skills that previous standards didn’t address as thoroughly. We would be disappointed if we were not able to have the funding to continue these standards,” she said.
“I don’t care what program you teach, but our children must be educated for a world-class competition, because the people that we are competing with are not just within the states, it is worldwide,” Senator Arpke added.
“If we can’t measure the outcomes of our programs, I am sorry, that is very expensive and not acceptable and No Child Left Behind ever came close,” he said.
“I hope you as school board members know that we are not competing against other Kansas Schools in competency. We are competing on a worldwide basis. So, I would challenge you how are you going to help your superintendent and her teachers reach the standards you want to raise the bar at what level?” Arpke asked.
School board member Barbara Brittan spoke up to say, “I don’t think we are competing against other Kansas school districts.”
To which Arpke quickly replied,” I understand that, but all the reports that I get, and feedback I get, is in response to other Kansas schools.”
“Comparing all the different test scores given across the United States, the ones most important to me in assessment are in reading skills and math,” stated Arpke.
“If I look at where we are on a world level, we are a long ways from being in the top 10, let alone the top 25,” he said.
“I look at where Kansas is, we are ranked somewhere between seven and nine with Massachusetts being number one. But in world competition, that’s a pretty steep ladder to climb,” he added.
Guy responded with a question to Senator Arpke about whether his data compares every student in the United States to the upper 30-40 per cent upper level students in China.
“Because in China, they filter off students into an academic stream and the rest of them go into a technical skills stream,” she said.
“When, in the United States, you are comparing every child, including special education children who may have special needs. China filters the students in different areas and we mainstream. I think we can always do better, that’s not what I am here to say: that we look at the data and can’t do better,” Guy added.
Board member Debby Barbur responded to Arpke’s comments by saying, “I think this is where the confusion with data occurs. We are looking at different studies or research. I know that there isn’t any school board member here or teacher who is trying to alter the outcome of achievement scores.
“Common Core gives us the ability to begin on a level playing field because we have 48 states using the program so the same measurements and outcomes should be similar,” she said.
“I am still trying to get a handle on what the concern is about Common Core,” Barbur continued.
“No Child Left Behind just exhausted its usefulness, like most things do. There were certainly some good points to the program but they are irrelevant now. It’s now time to go to the next step. So, I don’t want them to throw out Common Core on the assumption No Child Left Behind was wasted time in someone’s opinion,” she concluded.
“Common Core has not come to the Senate yet this year, and I only focus on the many bills and written materials that are being voted on or debated that day.” Arpke replied.
When asked about his vision for public education in Kansas, Senator Arpke stated “I think we educate our students so that they are able to compete in the job market and they do a good job for their employer. Some employers have higher education expectations than our schools do.”
He mentioned visiting with employers in Wichita, Topeka, Lawrence, etc. that have invested six or seven months in training a new employee that may only stay one or two years with the company and because of that training investment, this is a major concern.
“That is where I am saying that our students have the basic math and reading skills to be good employees and successful. These are the employers telling me this and it is across the board: manufacturing, construction, technology, etc. To work in these places you have to be technologically skilled but when you walk in the door you must have the basic skill sets in order to potentially learn a different type of technology,” Arpke said.
“You need to focus on what is going to help the student do well and that is math and reading skills. If you don’t have these skills, you are not going to do well and the teaching should begin early in their learning like the fourth or fifth grade. If you don’t have that, then how are you going to catch up?” Arpke said.
“After hearing you say all that, I believe we are right there with you,” stated Guy.
“We want our children to be successful in the workplace. We want them to be able to go out and succeed. That is our goal for ALL our children: being successful learners in the changing world. So I think we are right there with you,” she said.
“The model doesn’t seem to be working,” Arpke said, Colleges and Universities are telling us that about 40 per cent of kids that go to college are not prepared to enter college when they do,”
“I guess that takes us back to the Common Core because that raises the bar all the way through the 12th grade,” commented Guy.
“And the Common Core is a college and career ready program,” she added.
This discussion then brought up conversation on the viability of technical and trade schools as well as the Kansas junior colleges throughout the state helping to prepare the career oriented student, especially the technology and trade oriented students with their education. The junior college route also enables students to receive more individual resources if needed because of smaller class sizes rather than going straight into a college or university setting.
Senator Arpke pointed out the graduation rate (based on a student spending four years at the school) of the state’s colleges and universities. The highest is from KU according to his data and it is only 31 percent.
“That is not acceptable,” he said.
“The way colleges are spending money per student, based on the amount of money charged per student, with this kind of result needs to be audited. And they will be.” he said.
“Universities are building new buildings and trying to update their facilities to keep up with the major universities back east. The use of labs, for example, in a research university being in use only 18 percent of the time is totally unacceptable,” he added.
“I am not picking on Kansas; I am totally about education across the board. If we want major corporations to move here, something has to be done,” said Arpke.
“I want to give school boards complete charge of every dollar given to you for education. I hate silos for special programs. I want you to decide how to spend your money and do the job of educating your students,” he said.
“That might sound really weird coming from me, but I just don’t like the state government telling you what to do with your dollars. You know best. Listen to your patrons and spend the money the way you want to achieve your goals,” he added.
“I don’t want to tell you what to do, but I do have things that I want to see come out of your schools, things that are important,” concluded Arpke.
Recently appointed Assistant Superintendent Chris Cooper ended the discussion by saying that he agrees with Arpke in principle and that the local board and administration are all going in the same direction to achieve their goals.