The teacher walkouts continue, with Arizona and Colorado recent additions to the statewide protests. Frustration turned to exasperation in West Virginia and then Oklahoma, and has been building for years as legislatures and governors ignore the gathering storm over American schools: buildings deteriorating, even unsafe; equipment and supply shortages; cuts in programs and curricula; technology sideswiped; staff and faculty salaries cut or frozen; pensions crimped or stalled, sometimes raided.
Shared grievance grew to organized protest in states where teachers were fed up with the stinginess and neglect. They had come to the end of their string with overlords hostile to local education, to its increasing needs, to the courts that had ordered an end to the penury.
Kansans can relate to this and more. Our teachers didn’t walk out but they had good reason.
Three years ago, no group among the publicly employed was treated as roughly and with as much contempt at the Kansas Statehouse as our elementary and secondary school teachers.
During the 2015 legislative session, one salvo after another was aimed at local public education. Among them were abolishing the school finance act, slashing state funding for schools, and the robbery of teacher pensions to fill holes in a $400 million deficit brought on by cuts in income taxes for the wealthy.
Other assaults (some of which became law) included measures that would:
– bring criminal charges on educators for using material viewed by others as “harmful” to minors. The legislation was vague, largely without definition, leaving such terms as “obscene” and “harmful” to the imagination;
– issue $1 billion in revenue bonds to shore up teachers’ and state employees’ pensions raided to fill part of the budget hole. The money was said to be aid for schools – not true. The plan was to sell bonds, invest the proceeds in the stock market, and watch the profits roll in. (We know how that turned out.)
– Prohibit job-related paycheck deductions; this was designed chiefly to forbid payroll contributions for (teacher) union dues. Language being tricky, the measure affected a long list of deductions for other purposes, including charitable and non-profit contributions;
– Require school district employees to be fingerprinted and submit to criminal background checks every five years. The measure affected 35,000 certified educators and 27,000 non licensed employees working in districts statewide. (Total cost: $3 million.) It was not explained why the bill was silent on the legions of volunteers and college students involved with children in local public schools.
A July 2015 review of the state’s Licensed Personnel Report told the Kansas Board of Education that more than 3,700 teachers had left Kansas, retired or taken jobs outside education after the 2014-15 school year – a 73 percent increase (1,500) from two years before.
There was little doubt about the cause of this exodus or its massive increase.
“Instead of funding our schools, legislators are vilifying our teachers,” said Mark Farr, president of the Kansas National Education Association and high school science teacher. Fifteen percent of 24,000 statewide faculty would leave local schools.
The number was bound to increase. Teachers were threatened and dispirited. Many said that given the opportunity they would follow colleagues who had left to teach in another state. Others would leave the profession no matter where it took them.
True aid to education, stymied by Brownback’s block grant funding, continued its free fall. But after another session, the 2016 election sent enough new legislators to Topeka last year to stop the assault. Some tax rates were recovered, the former aid formula restored, the bleeding stemmed. The Supreme Court then ordered a thorough advance for education funding, which had been in decline for nearly a decade.
The legislature, if not its leadership, has tried to help, to revive the Kansas we once knew: one that once produced national models engineering technology, in rural medical training, in producing Rhodes Scholars, in our universities’
biomedical and agricultural research, among other milestones. It all began with local schools.
Our teachers needn’t walk out. Not if the recovery continues with adequate and equitable aid to education, from local schools through colleges and universities. And not if the next election sends even more new and thoughtful legislators to Topeka.