How one man accomplished extraordinary things for Kansas schools

September 12, 2020 4:00 am

Dale Dennis in 1980. Set to retire as Kansas deputy education commissioner on Sept. 30, 2020, Dennis arrived at the Kansas State Department of Education in 1967 as a school finance administrator. (Submitted/KSDE)

The Kansas Reflector welcomes opinion pieces from writers who share our goal of widening the conversation about how public policies affect the day-to-day lives of people throughout our state. Mark Tallman is the Kansas Association of School Boards‘ associate executive director for advocacy and communications.

I first met Dale Dennis, the legendary Kansas school finance chief retiring this month, in the early 1980s when I was serving as a young lobbyist for college students. That means I’ve known him for nearly 40 of the 53 years he worked for the Kansas State Department of Education. 

I could write about Dale as a role model for a public servant, an encyclopedia of knowledge about school finance in particular and Kansas education in general, and the countless personal and professional ways he has helped me. But I know others will have more to say about Dale the man. I’d rather reflect on what he meant to the institution he loved: Kansas public education. 

Dale begin his career in the 1960s when voters amended the state constitution, creating a State Board of Education to lead improvement in Kansas education. In the 1970s, he implemented the School District Equalization Act, the first major effort to ensure equitable funding regardless of local wealth, helping rural schools survive and poor districts compete. He helped schools begin special education, bringing educational hope to tens of thousands of children with disabilities every year. 

In the 1980s, he helped Kansas respond to the “Nation At Risk,” a report led by his fellow southeast Kansan, Robert Haderlein, who was president of the National School Boards Association. Those efforts led to a new school finance system in 1992 that not only raised school budgets and cut property taxes but required a new accreditation system based on student outcomes, new accountability through tests, and a longer school term. 

Kansas Deputy Education Commissioner Dale Dennis. (Submitted/KSDE)

The 2000s saw the federal No Child Left Behind Act, creating a new focus on the “achievement gap” that shows low income, minority and other groups too often failing to meet standards to prepare them for graduation, college and careers. Those same issues led to the Montoy school finance case. Dale again helped develop and implement changes in school funding, accreditation and assessment to help those students. 

In the last decade, Dale has helped schools deal with the aftermath of the Great Recession, declining revenue brought about by tax cuts, and a poor state economy. He helped make a plan to settle another school finance lawsuit and to address the COVID-19 pandemic, as education leaders work to redesign and accredit schools based on preparing students for postsecondary education and careers, not just passing tests. 

What are the results of these efforts? I suspect there may be some who think of the past 50 years as a pointless series of so-called “reforms” and acronyms, billions of dollars spent with little to show as educational results have stagnated. 

But when Dale began working for KSDE, barely half of Kansas adults had a high school diploma and fewer than 10% had a four-year degree. Today, 90% of Kansans have completed high school; over 60% have some college experience or credential and over 30% have a four-year degree or higher. Kansas exceeds the U.S. average in each category. 

Students with disabilities receive more services and greater chances for successful lives. Minority students are slowly closing the gap. Students are in school longer, with more preschool and all-day kindergarten programs, fewer dropouts and taking more classes to graduate. More students are enrolling in higher education, and more are earning technical certificates. 

Dale would be the first to agree this isn’t enough. Kansas still has too many high school dropouts and too many students who do not reach the level required for more rigorous college courses. One reason is that schools are serving students with far more challenges: more poverty, more trauma, more mental illness and depression, more immigrants and English Language Learners.

No one person can take credit for the state’s educational progress, but Dale Dennis has been the most consistent leader in Kansas public education for the past half century by standing for the following principles: 

The best intentions and teaching techniques are meaningless without funding to hire and support people to implement them. 

Resources alone will not improve education without well designed, accountable programs guided by a passion for students 

Educators are the key to learning and must be valued. 

The best way for the state to improve education is to lead and support school leaders in local communities, who have the best understanding of the needs of their children and schools.

Suitable funding. Value people. Leadership through service. I hope we can remember Dale’s lessons for the next 53 years. Thank you, Mr. Dennis!

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Mark Tallman
Mark Tallman

Mark Tallman is Kansas Association of School Boards' associate executive director for Advocacy and Communications and has been with KASB since 1990. Tallman’s primary expertise includes school funding, academic achievement and education governance. He was appointed to an open seat on the Auburn-Washburn USD 437 school board in 1989 and was elected to two full terms, serving a total of 11 years.