Now that the Legislature has increased state aid to public schools in Kansas, districts must decide how the money will be spent. Gary Menke is the general director of fiscal services for Topeka USD 501, and he expects the district to “increase the at-risk spending.” All you have to do is take a look at the massive racial and economic achievement gaps in Kansas to realize that this is exactly what districts across the state should be doing.
One example is right in front of us. More than three-quarters of USD 501 students are eligible for free or reduced-price lunch, which means a substantial proportion of the district is classified as economically disadvantaged. On average, USD 501 students also perform worse on the ACT than their peers in every other Topeka district. In 2016, USD 501 had a composite score of 19.9 – two points lower than the state average. While this is no surprise for a large, low-income district like USD 501, it’s one of many educational disparities that must be addressed in Kansas.
ACT Inc. has a series of “readiness benchmarks” that suggest how likely a student is to succeed at the college level. For example, students who receive an 18 on the English portion of the test have a 50 percent chance of earning a B and a 75 percent chance of earning a C in “first-year college courses in the corresponding subject area.” Although the benchmark scores for reading, math and science (22, 22 and 23, respectively) are higher, students who reach them enjoy the same probability of success.
In 2016, 31 percent of Kansas students reached the benchmarks in all four subjects. But the numbers get far worse when they’re broken down by race and ethnicity. While white students met or surpassed each of the benchmarks 36 percent of the time, they were four and a half times more likely to do so than their black peers (who accomplished the same thing 8 percent of the time). This gulf narrows for other groups, but not by much – to 15 percent for Hispanic test takers and 19 percent for American Indians. These are just a few of the reasons why the Supreme Court was right to emphasize funding for at-risk students in its decision on the Gannon v. State of Kansas lawsuit.
One of the best ways to combat educational inequality is to provide a quality preschool education for as many children as possible.
As we’ve noted in previous editorials, a large body of research (including longitudinal studies conducted by the Frank Porter Graham Child Development Institute at the University of North Carolina and HighScope Educational Research Foundation) demonstrates that the positive effects of preschool can last an entire lifetime. Moreover, a task force comprised of early childhood education experts recently convened in Washington, D.C. to assess “the current state of scientific knowledge on pre-kindergarten effects” and found “uniformly positive evidence” that preschool gets students ready for kindergarten.
This is why increased funding for the Kindergarten Academic Preparation Program – which is administered by the YWCA of Northeast Kansas and United Way of Greater Topeka – is an excellent way to improve outcomes for at-risk students. While the Supreme Court still has to rule on the constitutionality of the funding approved by the Legislature, it’s reassuring that districts like USD 501 will know how to spend the money when they get it.
Members of The Capital-Journal’s editorial advisory board are Zach Ahrens, Matt Johnson, Ray Beers Jr., Laura Burton, Garry Cushinberry, Mike Hall, Jessica Lucas, Veronica Padilla and John Stauffer.