A free email newsletter breaking down the issues that affect Kansans and Missourians the most.
Delivered every Tuesday and Thursday morning
On May 14, a Johnson County pro-public schools group tried to highlight a law it said would harm the Blue Valley School District.
It was referring to legislation in Kansas that will allow students to transfer to any public school district in the state that has extra space. Gov. Laura Kelly signed it into law May 16 as part of a large education funding and policy package.
In later posts, Stand Up Blue Valley said the measure would strain the “excellent” schools in Blue Valley and was being pushed by “anti-public education forces” hoping to sow confusion and dissatisfaction with public schools.
But some commenters on the posts and civic leaders said the group’s language detracts from its message.
Edgar Palacios, a leader with Revolución Educativa, said the term “open borders” immediately makes him think of the anti-immigrant rhetoric surrounding the 2016 presidential election. Revolución Educativa focuses on “building the political power of Latinos around issues of education,” Palacios said.
“I question whether they’re afraid of more Black and brown children coming into the space, if that’s what they’re really concerned about,” Palacios said. “I also think that it’s a missed opportunity, because my questions would be more around … who’s leaving districts?”
Ian Graves, a parent and Prairie Village City Council member who lives in the Shawnee Mission School District, said he previously viewed Stand Up Blue Valley as a “centrist pro-education advocacy group.”
But its recent posts about open enrollment appealed to “baser instincts,” Graves said, and were dividing those who would otherwise unite in support of school funding and “equal access to high quality education.”
“This is what the intended purpose of this (open enrollment) policy is,” he said. “To pit families looking for better opportunities against people who don’t want to ostensibly lose opportunities that they feel they’re entitled to by living in a wealthy area.”
Stand Up Blue Valley is a nonpartisan group that supports funding public education and local control of school boards. It opposes diverting public dollars to private schools.
The group declined to comment.
The open enrollment policy’s goals and how it will work
Under the new law, each district will determine its capacity and accept applications for any spaces not filled by district residents. Districts will use a lottery system to allocate spots if there are more applicants than spaces.
Schools can’t accept or deny students on the basis of ethnicity, nationality, gender, income, disability, English proficiency, achievement, aptitude or athleticism.
The Kansas Policy Institute, a think tank that focuses on reducing the size and expense of government and promoting choice in education, was a supporter of the proposal.
Stand Up Blue Valley calls the institute “anti-public schools.”
But James Franko, the institute’s president, said supporting schools isn’t the point of its work.
“The point of this policy and a lot of the other stuff that KPI talks about is to focus on kids, not to support public schools or private schools,” he said. “It has nothing to do with anything but driving student achievement and educational opportunity.”
Franko said the open enrollment law helps grant individual students access to quality education that best meets their needs.
“The hope is for families who can’t afford, frankly, to move to Blue Valley or Olathe or something like that … to give them the flexibility to find the right educational option,” he said.
Districts that oppose the policy have said it will make planning difficult and could lead to overcrowding if they underestimate how many district residents will enroll.
Franko said he doesn’t expect enrollment shifts to be a major problem, since many families will still choose schools closest to them and districts already have to be prepared for change. For example, if a new business opens and attracts families to move into a district during the middle of a school year, schools would have to find room for those students.
Blue Valley worries about overcrowding under open enrollment policy
When the policy goes into place during the 2024-25 school year, there’s no way to be certain how it will affect districts’ enrollment.
But Blue Valley is one of several districts predicting openings will be in high demand.
In written testimony to the legislature, the Blue Valley and Olathe school districts issued a joint letter opposing an initial version of the legislation. Also in Johnson County, the superintendent of De Soto schools wrote a separate email in opposition.
The Blue Valley and Olathe letter noted concerns with accurately predicting how much space they will have, receiving a “rush of special education students” (emphasis in original) and having local citizens upset that their property taxes were supporting nonresidents.
Blue Valley did not respond to an interview request from The Beacon.
Stand Up Blue Valley’s five posts on open enrollment, published from May 14-21, echoed the assumption that the district would be a destination for families.
The group said residents could see their children cut from sports teams, second grade classrooms with fewer desks than students and strained budgets for special education — which they argue Kansas already underfunds.
All but the final post used the hashtag #OpenBorders.
In repeated posts and comments defending its wording, Stand Up Blue Valley argued that the language more clearly conveys the impact of the policy than other terms, like open enrollment or open boundaries.
“(W)e actually haven’t had anyone who seems to be confused about what we’re talking about, and its use does not seem to be causing confusion with any other connotation of the phrase,” the group replied to one commenter who questioned the use of #OpenBorders.
On earlier posts, Stand Up Blue Valley had already fielded at least a dozen comments that called the language “harmful,” “racist,” “xenophobic,” “elitist” and “gross” and said it could pit people against each other or detract from the group’s message.
Palacios said he didn’t comment on the post because the commenters had covered his points and Stand Up Blue Valley didn’t seem receptive to criticism.
“I think, to ignore the fact that ‘open borders’ is language that is associated with immigration and other highly controversial issues in our community is a choice,” Palacios said. “When you have a community of folks telling you to do better and think better about it,” it’s difficult to plead ignorance, Palacios said. “You’re choosing to be complicit.”
What about students who leave districts?
Conversations about school districts gaining too many students are only half of the story, Palacios said. He wonders if Blue Valley is also considering students who leave.
The assumption seems to be “that people want to come into a community like Blue Valley and take advantage of all the wonderful resources that are available and ultimately destroy what makes Blue Valley Blue Valley,” he said.
Instead, Palacios said racist rhetoric can alienate people of color — who make up more than 30% of the Blue Valley School District — and discourage people doing good work within the district.
“Last week, I had a conversation with a parent in Blue Valley whose children are leaving the school district … because of the racist interactions that they have on almost a near daily basis,” he said.
There’s also the question of what happens to districts that lose students or can’t predict what the impact will be.
Kansas City, Kansas Public Schools is one district that isn’t sure which way enrollment might flow, said Stephen Linkous, the district’s chief of staff.
If students transfer in with unexpected needs, KCKPS would scramble to redistribute resources at the last minute, Linkous said. If a district were to lose students, that would diminish funding from federal or state sources that’s allocated on a per-student basis, requiring cuts to staff or programs.
As Kansas City Public Schools in Missouri has pointed out during conversations about charter schools and declining enrollment, losing students doesn’t diminish all staffing and facilities expenses.
Linkous said factors that might keep students in the district include reliance on school transportation — which districts wouldn’t have to provide for nonresidents — and programs that families appreciate.
One hope for supporters of the proposal is that districts who fear losing students — or see an opportunity to attract more of them — will be motivated to improve, Franko said.
But Graves said he’s worried those districts will instead be caught in a destructive cycle, driving underresourced districts into worse performance and making families more desperate to leave. The new policy focuses on helping a limited number of students leave their home districts instead of providing quality education to all, he added.
“It reduces everybody down to this individual actor instead of a society that provides a public good for children and families,” Graves said.