Published Online: March 26, 1997

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Arts Educators' Protest Prompts Rewrite of Kan. Measure

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Kansas legislators have rewritten a resolution defining the essential components of a "quality basic education" after protests from arts educators who complained that the measure would have meant cutting them out of the school funding pie.

The resolution that the House is considering would direct the state school board to define the subjects that should be offered to every student and spell out the cost. The measure, which would not be legally binding, would also need Senate approval.

In the latest version, a definition is left solely to the discretion of the state board. But an earlier version proposed last month by Rep. Kay O'Connor, a Republican, triggered hundreds of angry phone calls and faxed messages to the Statehouse from arts advocates and parents.

The initial resolution specified that such subjects as mathematics, language arts, science, and history are "essential to a quality basic education," but further stated that "activities ... such as music, sports, and the arts ... are extracurricular and not necessary to a quality basic education."

Critics claimed that the original proposal was an attempt to limit state financial support of instructional programs and push more responsibility onto local districts.

"We were just shocked that people in positions of authority would be so shortsighted and unaware of the benefits of these programs," David E. Circle, the director of fine arts for the Shawnee Mission school district near Kansas City, said last week. "I think the effort is to restrict what the state pays for in the way of education, and ... the amount of money they are then required to send to the school districts," said Mr. Circle.

The inclusion of sports in that definition did not bring a similar challenge because it includes only extracurricular sports programs and not physical education, which the state requires for graduation.

Concern About Suits

Lawmakers quickly introduced a new resolution without the objectionable wording. The sponsors said that the document was intended only to shield the state from lawsuits over the definition of a suitable education, which is guaranteed to all students under the state constitution, and was never intended to eliminate arts programs from the schools.

"Courts across the country are suggesting to state legislators that they define a package of educational goods and services and build their funding formula around it so they will not be subject to constitutional challenges," said Mike O'Neal, the chairman of the House education committee and author of the latest resolution.

Rep. Sue Storm, a former high school English teacher and a member of the House education committee, contends that the measure is unnecessary and potentially problematic."There are so many more things involved in the cost than just curriculum," said the freshman Democrat. "Mr. O'Neal's resolution doesn't call for those other things to be defined, like class size, which drives everything," Ms. Storm said.

If the resolution is approved by the legislature, arts groups intend to plead their case to the state board.

That is where the intent of the measure could change, said Rep. Bill Reardon, a Democrat and the senior House member.

"If Mr. O'Neal had full control over it, I believe the resolution would have some benefits. But I'm fearful that ... with a state board that is ... split with religious conservatives [with their own agenda], Mr. O'Neal would lose control over it," he said.

But board member Bill Wagnon said that he would prefer that the board leave the decision of defining a core curriculum up to local districts. Mr. Wagnon said that he views the resolution as a diversionary tactic by the legislature to duck its constitutional responsibility to finance a suitable education for all students.

But Mr. O'Neal maintains that while there may be a handful of lawmakers with such an agenda, his resolution is not an attempt to reduce public school funding. "My definition of core curriculum includes music and arts; the question is, how many units," the Republican said. "So it's not a matter of if, but it's about how much of these things should be required. This may actually enhance curricular offerings of some smaller school districts that don't currently offer music and arts."

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