Last week 3,100 offenders were released from federal prison as a result of bipartisan criminal justice reform that will reduce prison populations, provide social services and cut federal incarceration costs. This restructure, years in coming, was helped by an effort from industrialist and philanthropist Charles Koch that began in five states with Republicans, Democrats and nonprofit leaders of multiple prison reform organizations — unlikely allies. 

The effort encouraged advocates who believed in reform although they disagreed among ways to accomplish it. The successful strategy depended not on system-wide change but building from consensus-driven, small steps. 

Now, the question is whether this approach can benefit K-12 education. 

At a January meeting of Seminar Network, a Koch-backed organization, two initiatives, Yes Every Kid and 4.0 Schools were introduced. Both are funded by the Charles Koch Foundation and the Walton Family Foundation at $5 million each plus another $5 million from donors.

It’s not yet known if Kansas will be one of the five states to start the education program, and officials with the Koch network have said it’s too early to provide specific policy priorities. However, according to Education Week, Yes Every Kid is intended to eventually become a political action coalition monitoring statehouse legislation, while 4.0 Schools will provide grants to drive innovation in learning inside and outside the classroom. News channels reported donors as saying the shift will promote personalized learning, help local priorities, improve schools and working "alongside" teachers. 

Listening more at the state level comes as welcome change. Working together across education organizations, schools and teachers could be a truly valuable opportunity. 

However, it will be more difficult in Kansas to achieve education progress when compared to federal prison reform because most education policy comes from state and local, not federal legislation. 

Moreover, in Kansas it will not be easy to find common ground between groups that have disagreed intensely over issues of labor protections, tax credits to support private schools, public school funding levels and linking teacher salaries to student test scores. 

The key to success may lie in addressing smaller problems on which there is less conflicting public opinion. Then the focus becomes working on the issue, not negotiating entrenched, opposing viewpoints. 

For example, while most Kansans see the need to increase student access to electronic technology, agreement is needed on how much or what kind of computer time can replace the benefits of classroom learning. 

Major research is needed to examine the broad, relatively new area called personalized learning (largely computer based), its effects and how to incorporate its money-saving advantages into public schools. 

We need to better understand the relationship of traditional and mediated technology instruction in schools, because we cannot afford to abandon the great, unspoken benefit of public schools in bringing together our diverse student body. The time-honored method of group-centered class participation helps students understand their common bonds through the study of history, literature, science and civics. Students’ citizenship skills, respect for others and teamwork are among the strongest ties that bind us as Kansans and Americans. 

If all sides can put away polarizing skepticism and cynicism about others’ supposed education motives and move forward with practical initiatives that include teachers and other educators’ perspectives, this new initiative could become the start of truly positive growth in student learning across Kansas.

Sharon Hartin Iorio is the professor and dean emerita of Wichita State University College of Education.

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