May 28, 2023

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Annual Education Funding Crisis

Year after year, one of the almost-guaranteed topics of debate among Kansas state legislators, judges, teacher unions, taxpayers, school administrators and the general public is what is the proper level of funding for the state’s schools….K-12 and the colleges and universities.

They talk about the important relationship between properly funded schools and a forward-looking and prosperous Kansas as well as the obligation to provide good educational opportunities for the young people of Kansas.

There are a lot of good intentions but for one reason or another, little evidence of a follow through with a workable master plan that answers most of the fiscal needs without bankrupting the state.

Kansas isn’t the only state facing this dilemma and challenge. News reports tell of teacher strikes and walkouts and bitter and stalled efforts in legislative chambers to come up with a reasonable, affordable solution to provide “proper” funding for state-aided schools.

There is no single equation using enrollment numbers, population figures, graduation rates, demographics, economic conditions, the levels of teacher training and/or additional information that can be fed into a computer to spit out a perfect solution to the funding problem. A plan that will provide the proper level of funding for all students, under-achievers as well as honor students, and highly competitive salaries for all teachers and administrators.

This annual education funding “crisis” seems to have become more intense in recent years. Debate has become more strident, raw political warfare with little flexibility or willingness to negotiate or consider “the other” side of an issue.

One thing missing in today’s cross-country debate about the importance for proper public support for education is that there are few, if any, nationally respected, recognized and effective champions speaking for education.

Who and where are individuals such as then University of California’s chancellor Clark Kerr, Notre Dame’s former president Rev. Theodore Hesburgh, Harvard’s president Derek Bok and KU’s chancellor Franklin Murphy who were looked to as giants in their fields, highly respected by both Democrats and Republicans; leaders who those in Congress and national leaders looked to for advice relative to educational and other national issues.

This was 50 or so years ago. Would they have been able to merit the reputation and respect they enjoyed in past years if they were in the same position in today’s education and political environment?

In many ways the education business 50 years ago was far different than today. Granted, funding has always been an issue, an important issue….Murphy’s constant conflict over funding with then Kansas governor George Docking was one of the prime reasons for Murphy’s decision to leave KU for the leadership of California’s UCLA.

But today’s administrators and teachers face what seem to be even more intense funding problems. K-12 teachers seem to end up providing parental and discipline services; the threat of potential acts of violence, drugs, mental health issues, etc. all divert time from their number one responsibility of being a good and effective teacher or administrator – not a social behavior counselor or babysitter.

On college campuses the idea of a university serving as a free marketplace for ideas where individuals can disagree but still be respectful is a long lost dream. Funding is still a critical issue as well as the question of allowing guns on campus.

Using Murphy as an example – he was a superior chancellor in every respect with a superior record of achievements. He provided the leadership and vision which moved KU into the upper levels of state-aided universities. Would he have been able to make such a difference in today’s society and with the governors, state legislators and regents of today? Have schools and universities changed so much in recent years that it is going to take an almost entirely new generation of leaders, in education and in government, and the public’s assessment of the importance of a good education before public education is able to move into a higher level of excellence and gain the public’s concern and attention?

Who today has the public support, respect and record of excellence of those mentioned above? Who in Kansas is considered the visionary, leader, enthusiastic and effective spokesperson and supporter of education?

Someone needs to emerge and those states who do find such inspirational leaders are those most likely to grow in excellence. Unless someone such as this can move into such a role in Kansas, the fractions and divisive and harmful annual debate in the Kansas legislature is likely to continue.…to the detriment of the state and its people.

Who has these qualifications and is willing to make the commitment and sacrifice to make a difference?