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Recovery Act funds prop up Kansas schools amid priority crisis

While the Kansas legislature has no problem finding aesthetically pleasing ways of spending tax payer dollars, Kansas schools are undergoing some of their biggest budget cuts in history. Rumors began circulating that some of Kansas' schools may follow the Kansas City, Missouri School District's lead in shutting down schools due to a lethal combination of under-performing students and budget cuts. In an effort to salvage many public schools from the brink of budget disaster and falling performance, a number of school districts have set their sights on obtaining increased federal assistance.

Kansas has gotten its wish, and is now expected to receive nearly $27 million in federal Recovery Act funds. Once Kansas receives the funding, school districts will compete via an application process to receive a piece of the pie. The State's best performing schools are not allowed to compete for funding. Rather, eligible schools must either be classified as "persistently lowest achieving," which means the school has a graduation rate of 60% or less and has perpetually placed in the lowest 5% of Kansas schools, or, it must be a Tier III school, which is described as "a school that has failed to meet annual yearly progress for two years and is not identified as a persistently lowest achieving school."

"This is a very competitive grant," said Julie Ford, director of the title programs and services team for the Kansas State Department of Education.

Indeed. Numerous Kansas City, Kansas schools have applied, including a few in the Argentine area. Recipient schools will have to follow strict federal educational models and guidelines in an effort to encourage an increase in test scores by improving "the overall classroom learning environment, increasing attendance rates, and implementing a 12-hour building schedule."

But this isn't merely about funding. Governor Mark Parkinson, following President Obama's affinity for creating czars and commissions via Executive Order, has implemented the new Kansas Commission on Graduation and Dropout Prevention and Recovery. Though a "collaboration of businesses, schools, community organizations, parents, state agencies and youth" the Commission will examine and recommend policies to decrease Kansas' dropout rate. The end goal is to reduce Kansasans' reliance upon state and federal assistance through increased educational achievement.

Meanwhile, these measures aren't enough for some school districts, who have joined suit against the State of Kansas. The suit seeks to enforce the Schools For Fair Funding agreement. In 2005, the Kansas Supreme Court determined that Kansas schools were indeed under-funded and ordered a funding increase. Though compliant with the order in 2006 and 2007, the State cut funding in 2008 due to budget shortfalls, which have prevailed into the current year. The suit seeks to enforce the Kansas Supreme Court ruling.

This ongoing quagmire leaves many Kansas parents wondering when their children's education will ever be a priority to the State of Kansas. After all, Kansas lawmakers have managed to throw millions into statehouse renovations, Amtrak, and STAR Bond projects that are seemingly less urgent or necessary. When will allocating state tax dollars to educate the next generation of Kansasans become their top priority?

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