Education funding is a leading issue for many Kansans this election year and when voters go to the polls Nov. 6 they will be choosing between vastly different philosophies on how to create and maintain effective, efficient K-12 public schools.
Funding for public schools in Kansas has been a hot topic in the state legislative races this year, and for good reason.
Despite major cuts, more than half of the state’s budget is still spent on public schools.
Yet performance has been lackluster in many districts and among the state’s minorities.
Many Democrats point to the cuts, saying schools have been hit too hard and are about to get hit harder.
Representative Jim Ward is the ranking democrat on the House Education Committee and is running for re-election in Wichita’s 86th District. He says Kansas public schools will bear the weight of Republican Governor Sam Brownback’s tax plan that takes effect in January.
"How do you balance a budget if you take away $4.7 billion in an income tax cut to the richest Kansans? Public schools are the ones at risk because they are the ones that benefit the most," says Ward.
A report released earlier this month by the Kansas Legislative Research Department projects under the governor’s plan the state will take in around $2.5 billion less in tax revenue.
If proportionally applied, that would mean around $750 million in cuts to Kansas public schools over the next 4 years.
But Brownback has promised his tax plan won’t lead to further cuts for public schools. He says the best thing that he can do for education is get the economy going– something he says his income tax plan will do.
Michael O’Donnell is the Republican candidate running for the 25th district senate seat previously held by education committee chair and former Wichita school board member Jean Schodorf.
O’Donnell says even though Kansas law requires 65 percent of education dollars be spent in the classroom, there is not enough accountability.
"What is the money being used for? Where do you need more money? Where do you think that maybe you have too much overhead?" he asks.
"One of the arguments that I hear a lot is that there is too much administration, some of the school districts need to consolidate, some of the school districts, like Wichita’s, they say are too big," says O'Donnell.
O’Donnell says he wants to find ways not only to keep the status quo, but to produce a better result with the state’s K-12 education system, and that doesn’t necessarily mean more money.
"I don’t think that money always translates into better education," says O'Donnell.
"What I think is that we have to have teachers that are energized, we have to have students that have the resources that they need, and most importantly we need to make sure that dollars get into the classroom."
"The debate we have in Topeka, is what constitutes a classroom," says Ward
"Don’t pay attention to the fact that we cut schools half a billion dollars, lets talk about how much is going into the classroom," he says.
"Senator Schodorf teaches children who have a difficult time hearing to process words and to be able to communicate better. That is not counted as classroom work by the Republican methodology, but it has a huge effect on those kids and their ability to succeed in school."
One thing voters can be sure of: candidates want change in the state’s K-12 schools.
The uncertainty lies in the question of whether we need more money to provide a better education.
And whether Governor Brownback will be able to keep his promise and maintain current funding levels to Kansas public schools.