Kansas set lofty goals for its public schools in the next dozen years – but the Trump administration and independent experts suggest the state’s plan is as vague as it is ambitious.
The state’s plan lacks concrete details on closing academic gaps in its public schools, so much so that federal officials and outside reviewers question the state’s compliance with civil rights law that demands all children get fair learning opportunities.
But top Kansas education officials disagree. They say the state meets the needed standards and that it is in the process of providing more detail to federal regulators to show that.
“We have an amazing system in this state,” deputy education commissioner Brad Neuenswander said.
At issue is Kansas’ proposal for complying with the Every Student Succeeds Act – ESSA – a civil rights law under which schools receive money, including to help remove barriers to education and ensure quality teachers and schools for all children.
By 2030, Kansas schools should receive about $2 billion.
Kansas filed its plan to comply with the successor to the No Child Left Behind Act in September, announcing that it would aim to graduate 95 percent of its high school students. It wants 3 out of 4 kids to score proficient on math and reading tests. Fewer than half hit that mark today.
But what should have been a wide-ranging blueprint packed with statistical definitions and program logistics left regulators asking for critical details on how Kansas will identify and support struggling schools.
That surprised the Kansas State Department of Education, which had believed U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos’ agency was not seeking such point-by-point information.
DeVos’ department – which has ultimate authority to approve or deny Kansas’ plan — wrote to Kansas officials on Dec. 13 saying it could not OK an incomplete document.
The federal agency raised dozens of questions about whether Kansas is compliant, and set a Dec. 28 deadline for submitting revisions. Kansas made changes and then received requests for more.
The federal government’s queries touched on everything from serving migrant and homeless children to measuring progress among students learning English as a second language.
The agency said it was equally befuddled about how Kansas would monitor and track school performance, identify low-performing schools and help them improve.
Neuenswander said Kansas is in the same spot as many other states.
“We’re just all experiencing the same thing,” he said.
The federal government requested multiple rounds of revisions to Kansas’ plan since that Dec. 13 letter, he said, but added that this is “a normal process.”
He signaled confidence – based on past Kansas programs and plans that the U.S. Department of Education approved under President Barack Obama – that Kansas can prove its work for school equity is adequate.
The U.S. Department of Education will likely act on Kansas’ plan this month.
Read the U.S. Department of Education's letter on Kansas' ESSA plan. (Story continues below.)
The federal government isn’t the only one digging into state proposals. The U.S. Department of Education enlisted independent reviewers to weigh in – a requirement of the 2015 law.
Those third-party reviewers said Kansas’ plan fails to meet a wide range of statutory requirements. For instance, they want Kansas to ensure sound measurements of academic progress and take rigorous steps to address schools that struggle consistently year after year.
“Only 5 percent of schools would be identified for targeted support” under Kansas’ plan, the third-party feedback says.
The fear, they warned, is that other less troubled schools might not get the help they need. A separate review of state plans by more than 40 education experts and advocates across the political spectrum put Kansas at the bottom of the pack, trailed only by Michigan. That effort was spearheaded by the Collaborative for Student Success and Bellwether Education Partners.
“Kansas’ plan, in particular, was fairly incomplete and there were lots of missing details,” Bellwether reviewer Chad Aldeman said.
The conservative Fordham Institute, meanwhile, praised Kansas for proposing to measure school performance fairly – rather than leaning on data that tends to make middle-class schools appear better than poorer ones. But it said Kansas fell short of measures to assure that all children make progress – whether they are behind grade level or enrolled in gifted education. It was unimpressed, too, with the state’s efforts to make information about school performance clear and understandable to the public.
Neuenswander indicated he doesn’t give much stock to some of the external reviews of Kansas’ work, which he said often lacks context and knowledge of the state’s broader efforts to monitor and support schools beyond the specific federal programs those groups are scrutinizing.
Bellwether, for example, questioned whether Kansas’ 2030 goals were attainable and how Kansas picked them.
Neuenswander said they are based on job market projections that indicate kids will struggle to find employment otherwise.
“The only reason it’s not attainable,” he said, “is because no one’s gone after it yet.”
Celia Llopis-Jepsen is a reporter for the Kansas News Service, a collaboration of KMUW, Kansas Public Radio and KCUR covering health, education and politics. You can reach her on Twitter @Celia_LJ.