As another hot Kansas summer comes to an end, thousands of students around the state are headed back to the classroom – they leave behind the labor of summer jobs and wheat harvest, as well as the lazy days of family barbeques and swimming pools. This is an exciting time of year for kids across the state as they prepare for new classes, new teachers and new friends – even if they’re not quite ready for summer to end. This is also an exciting time for teachers as they welcome new students to their classrooms and finalize their lesson plans.

I recently had the opportunity to welcome back the students of Roosevelt Elementary School in Hays on their first day of school. Roosevelt’s theme for the 2011-2012 school year is Dream Big. I challenged the students to work hard so they can build the skills needed to realize their dreams, and I thanked the many hard-working teachers at Roosevelt for their perseverance and dedication to seeing that their students have the capability to keep dreaming big.

In order to be successful, a school needs students who want to learn, dedicated teachers who are committed to helping each student reach their full potential, administrators who are goal-oriented, and supportive parents and community members who reinforce the concepts and expectations taught at school. Strong schools are the foundation for the strong communities that ultimately make for a better Kansas. 

Education has long been a top priority in our state, and our schools do an excellent job of preparing our children for life beyond primary and secondary school, including college, technical institutions, and careers in the public and private sectors. But with the continuous influx of federal mandates – including No Child Left Behind (NCLB) – there are real concerns about the future of our state’s education system.

NCLB has been the wrong policy for Kansas because its “one-size-fits-all” federally-mandated approach to education places unnecessary restrictions on our state’s schools and increases costs to Kansas taxpayers. Since NCLB’s passage, I have committed myself to ensuring Kansas students and schools have every opportunity to succeed by supporting policies that would return control to local schools and ease excessive burdens.

Our schools have no problem being held accountable; they simply ask that the federal government afford them sufficient flexibility to tailor education plans to the unique needs of their students. Rather than being forced to teach to standardized tests – which NCLB currently mandates – schools need to have the flexibility to raise the bar and focus on preparing students for careers and higher education.

Unfortunately, it appears very unlikely that Congress will overhaul NCLB this year. But, I received reassurance from Secretary of Education Arne Duncan during a Senate Appropriations Subcommittee hearing in early August that if NCLB reauthorization is not completed by September, the Secretary will look to issue conditional waivers from the law’s most troublesome requirements. This is promising news for Kansas schools and students, but I don’t believe these waivers should come with burdensome strings attached. Including burdensome requirements for schools deserving of a waiver would be counterproductive. 

In fact, Kansas has already shown that a district with the willingness to step outside the box on student achievement can excel beyond the requirements of NCLB. Secretary Duncan specifically commended Kansas’ McPherson Unified School District 418, which recently received a first-of-its-kind NCLB waiver from the Department of Education to implement an innovative, locally-designed plan called “C3 - Citizenship, College and Career Readiness.” By not having to tailor their curriculum to standardized tests, McPherson educators can now focus on ensuring students have the skills needed to compete in the global economy. I am certain this Kansas school district is setting a precedent that will resonate in communities across the country.

Our children are Kansas’ most important resource, and giving them every opportunity to develop their God-given talents is vital to preserving the American dream. As students open their textbooks this fall, I will continue to look for ways to improve current laws and make common-sense reforms to our federal education policies so states and local communities can give our children every opportunity to succeed. I wish all students across Kansas the best for this upcoming year and encourage them to Dream Big, and work hard to pursue those dreams.