Kansas education officials did little to promote a public comment period for a school accountability plan designed to steer the state through 2030 and guide nearly $2 billion in federal spending.
While some states that publicized town halls and launched online surveys for their plans collected comments by the thousands, Kansas officials didn’t use such tools nor issue news releases or social media posts about the state’s public comment period.
Fewer than 20 people submitted feedback during the 30-day period — primarily the month of August — when the draft was available on the Kansas State Department of Education’s website.
Education Commissioner Randy Watson said that number isn’t a concern.
“What it speaks to is that most people in Kansas are attuned to where the (state) board is heading” with its vision for schools, he said. “And the people that are engaged and wanting to know about the impact of the ESSA plan, they are giving us feedback for that.”
ESSA refers to the Every Student Succeeds Act, a federal statute on better serving students — particularly those who are historically disadvantaged or underserved.
States were charged with crafting accountability plans that demonstrate how they will comply with the law, which replaced its predecessor, called the No Child Left Behind Act, in 2015. Kansas submitted its plan to the U.S. Department of Education on Sept. 12. Watson said Kansas had gathered public input for a separate initiative in 2015 that helped inform its work on complying with ESSA.
Jawanda Mast, an advocate for children with disabilities, disagrees with Watson’s assessment. Mast, whose teenage daughter attends school in Olathe, said she knew Kansas was required to publish its draft online for public comment but had difficulty finding it. She reached out to the department to ask for the link.
“I am pretty involved and kind of know what’s going on,” said Mast, who has concerns about how details in Kansas’ ESSA plan will affect special education. “If it’s that hard to find, it’s not very public.”
Through an open records request, the Kansas News Service sought all notices used to announce the public comment period and copies of the submitted comments.
The agency provided a screenshot of its public comment page — which was part of the early childhood, special education and federally funded services section of its website — and an invitation sent to an email list for specialists in early childhood and special education.
“These are the two tools that were used to get the message out,” an attorney for the agency wrote.
It did not use social media. During the 30-day comment period, however, it did share dozens of posts on social media platforms regarding other agency news.
Sixteen people or organizations submitted feedback. The agency initially delayed releasing the public comments to the Kansas News Service, citing an exemption to open records law pertaining to documents in which opinions are expressed.
Martha House, a longtime school librarian in Council Grove, was among those who wrote in. House said she and other librarians had kept an eye out for town hall opportunities to discuss the ESSA plan, but seeing none, watched for the 30-day online commenting window.
Several current and former school librarians were among those who wrote in with concerns about the plan’s lack of specifics on leveraging libraries to bolster student achievement.
“We had to try,” said House, president of the Kansas Association of School Librarians. “There are some things that librarians can really contribute to.”
Watson and education deputy commissioner Brad Neuenswander say Kansas had an ESSA advisory committee that met two or three times a year to discuss and help shape the plan.
Meeting dates and minutes were posted online, and the gatherings attracted extra participants who shared their thoughts.
The group included nearly 40 people, according to a list provided by the agency. About half were employees from large and small school districts across the state, representing various roles and functions, such as special education and school administration.
Others represented private schools, the postsecondary sector, education advocacy groups such as the teachers union and school board association, parents of children with disabilities and others.
“We try to get a lot of voice,” Neuenswander said. “We try to have a large enough representation of what we believe Kansas student population looks like, as well as trying to keep it a manageable enough group.”
Watson and Neuenswander also said they discussed and showed the ESSA draft in a variety of other contexts, such as at superintendent meetings.
“I would say most of what we did was get comments when we were out in the field,” Neuenswander said.
‘Deep and broad’
Kansas receives about $150 million annually for the federal programs tied to its ESSA plan, the bulk of which goes toward addressing academic achievement in low-income communities.
Chad Aldeman, of Bellwether Education Partners, a consulting group that promotes school improvement for underserved students in particular and is independently reviewing state ESSA plans, said states would benefit from seeking “both deep and broad” input because “no one person can represent an entire state.”
Aldeman has not reviewed what steps Kansas took, but he said most states used a combination of advisory committees and broader public outreach tools, such as surveys.
“If you think accountability matters, then you want a system that people can understand and react to,” he said.
The Kansas News Service reviewed dozens of other state websites for ESSA information and found news releases from all but two announcing the release of the drafts and calling for public comment.
Some states added summaries or readers’ guides to the dense policy blueprints — which can be upward of 100 or 200 pages — held town halls, supplemented the statutory minimum 30-day comment period with surveys or enlisted the help of school districts to notify families about input opportunities.
Such varied approaches were recommended by the Council of Chief State School Officers, which brings together heads of education for each state.
“Most states reached out to many stakeholders in different ways,” council spokeswoman Olympia Meola wrote in an email.
Last year the council published a guide on engaging communities in the ESSA process. It advised drawing on a range of strategies, such as leaning heavily on Facebook and Twitter to reach parents, using blogs and online surveys, and distributing printed materials to reach families that don’t have computers.
The group also suggested releasing glossaries, summaries free of education jargon, or other materials that make the ESSA draft more accessible to non-educators and clarify how it relates to the state’s own strategic vision.
“The intent of ESSA is to make sure the people affected by the law are at the table from the start of the process,” the guide said.
To that end, it advocated for starting early, to avoid a situation in which people feel they have been invited to give input only after decisions have been made.
According to a partial list of ESSA plans compiled on the Collaborative for Student Success’ UnderstandingESSA.org website, at least 15 states released more than one draft to the public.
Oklahoma is among those 15. It issued three drafts during 2016 and 2017, starting with a preliminary version published online with a survey that attracted more than 3,000 comments on questions such as what tests to use for measuring student progress and whether to spend certain funds on teacher retention or other efforts.
“In making those decisions, it was so very critical we heard from stakeholders,” said Robyn Miller, deputy superintendent for the Oklahoma State Department of Education.
It solicited comments from dozens of groups and institutions — from Native American tribes to military bases — and issued nearly 800 invitations for input.
The state held town halls and online webinars, seeking student participation at each, and 1,000 people turned out at seven locations statewide.
“I think from draft to draft, those stakeholders who have been very vocal, they could see that they were heard,” Miller said.
For example, Oklahoma added plans to recognize schools with robust arts or science programs in its online school accountability tool that families can navigate for information. The state also adopted feedback from its school librarians similar to the input that librarian House and others provided in Kansas.
The Kansas State Department of Education did conduct dozens of public meetings and gather thousands of comments in 2015, but that was unrelated to ESSA. Those efforts gleaned input from educators, families and businesses on what skills they thought today’s youths need to succeed and the role of schools in instilling those.
The feedback they received became the backbone for Kansans Can, the Kansas State Board of Education’s vision, which includes outcomes like success after high school and social skills and emotional growth among students.
“None of that is included in our ESSA plan,” Neuenswander said. “The board’s vision is not part of the ESSA plan.”
Instead, Neuenswander and Watson described ESSA as a subset of their agency’s work.
But because the Kansas ESSA plan is geared at meeting requirements for receiving and spending federal dollars, it contains many details above and beyond what was discussed on the Kansans Can listening tour.
It asks schools to more than triple test score proficiency rates for some student subgroups — such as African-Americans, English language learners and children with disabilities — by 2030. That would mean boosting scores on standardized math and reading tests at steep annual rates that the Kansas Association of School Boards is concerned have not previously been achieved and sustained on this scale.
The state also was required to make decisions in its plan about:
- How to support struggling schools.
- What steps to take if they miss progress targets.
- How to ensure children in minority racial and ethnic groups or from low-income families have equal access to qualified, skillful, experienced teachers.
- Whether to spend certain funds on improving equitable access to good teachers.
Some of these nitty-gritty components are what concerned Mast, the parent from Olathe.
Kansas, for example, used a key statistical threshold to determine which schools will have to meet which accountability targets. The state said it chose a threshold that is statistically sound, but Mast worries it will exempt many schools from goals related to serving children with disabilities. That’s one reason she wanted more public discussion.
“I did not feel like they were very transparent,” she said.
Watson and Neuenswander said the state education department’s ESSA plan fits with the Kansans Can vision. The proficiency targets and the goal of a 95 percent graduation rate, for example, reflect the State Board of Education’s push to meet Kansas workforce needs and ensure students are ready for life after high school.
The agency wasn’t trying to discourage public comments on its ESSA plan, Watson said, but did want to avoid causing any confusion in which the public might think educational officials were shifting away from Kansans Can.
The listening tour for that vision was one reason the agency didn’t see a need for more extensive outreach on ESSA.
“We felt like we already had the input of what Kansans wanted,” Watson said. “So we didn’t have to go repeat that process.”
Celia Llopis-Jepsen is a reporter for the Kansas News Service, a collaboration of KCUR, Kansas Public Radio, KMUW and High Plains Public Radio covering health, education and politics. You can reach her on Twitter @Celia_LJ. Kansas News Service stories and photos may be republished at no cost with proper attribution and a link back to kcur.org.