Teachers and some lawmakers are worlds apart
by KNEA President Blake West
The 2011 school year ends amidst celebrations, tears and joy all across Kansas. Our students experienced yet another outstanding year of learning. Educators in their various roles supported students’ needs for counseling, special services, library and research skills, nutrition, transportation, etc.
It’s been a banner year and graduations across the state highlight what we all know – our public schools are among the best in the nation, our educators are unmatched in professionalism and commitment.
Unfortunately, far too many policy-makers in Topeka are seemingly worlds apart from these glowing realities in Kansas’ classrooms.
While KNEA members worked diligently this year to fulfill the calling assigned to the Legislature by the Kansas Constitution – provide for intellectual, educational, vocational and scientific improvement by establishing and maintaining public schools, educational institutions and related activities – many lawmakers seemed oblivious to their charge, looking rather for loopholes to avoid their responsibilities.
Just weeks ago, several in the Kansas House took the lead on trying to make even greater cuts to funding for public education.
On another front, many in the Kansas House were determined to gut teacher retirement. Thankfully, the Senate steadfastly defended a more reasoned approach to preserving some semblance of decent benefits for a career of service… for now.
In all of the debate we heard on these issues, one underlying assumption went unchallenged by most policy-makers: the strategy to deal with lower state revenue during the recession is to cut essential services for citizens. Even cutting the quality of a Kansas public school education.
In the near future, Governor Sam Brownback plans to initiate discussions of state tax policy. He is reported to believe we must find ways to lower taxes on the rich. Brownback believes if we don’t lower their income taxes they will leave the state.
Schools benefit society and the economy
I bet there are economists and researchers (paid for by billionaires) who assure us that this viewpoint is accurate.
Frankly, though, I fear that the governor and a significant proportion of the Kansas House are willing to ignore completely what genuine research says: People AND businesses won’t leave Kansas because of income taxes. But they WILL leave if the quality of schools diminishes!
Some of the best economists and state budget experts offer a different future. Time and again, Greg LeRoy (founder of Good Jobs First) cites specific examples and research that shows that the future of any state’s economy rests on the quality of life created by wise investment of tax dollars.
Richard Sims, former budget director or coordinator of legislative research in various states, confirms that even when taxes are raised in a community, if the money is spent on schools there are both immediate AND long term benefits with creation of jobs, higher overall income for all citizens, and a range of other social benefits.
Of course, Kansas’ own Legislative Post Audit review of school spending and academic achievement demonstrated an almost one-to-one correlation between increases in school funding and increases in academic achievement.
Legislators vs. Teachers?
On May 19, it was my honor and joy to attend one of the many year-end celebrations at a school in Junction City. While there, I presented the Sherri Yourdon Memorial Scholarship to Selena Efken, a member of KNEA pursuing advanced study in education.The two worlds – teaching and policy-making – were never more glaring than in that classroom.
On the last day of school, these folks, like colleagues all across Kansas, are talking about the workshops they anticipate in the summer, graduate classes… and a little time away for renewal, too.
They are excited for the achievements of the class of 2011, but anxious for the prospects of the students of 2011-2012. This is the inspiring reality inside the walls of our public schools.
Outside the walls, a world apart, another reality exists. Those who believe that kids do not really need a librarian in their school, that counseling is a frill, that art, music and extracurricular activities should be paid for by the parents who can afford the “extras” or “the parents who REALLY care about their kids.”
As a teacher and now as KNEA president, my passion working in this association has been to advocate for professional excellence, collaboration, infusing 21st century skills, and connecting students with real-world problems that give meaning to their education.
But as long as others put the quality of our schools, the future of our communities, and the opportunities of our students at risk, we must divide our energies and fight a second battle: the policy battle just to sustain our public schools.
I hope we win that battle decisively and soon so we can focus on the work of making our schools even better. I hope the short summer is a renewing time so we can regroup for the crucial battles that lie ahead in 2011-2012!
Thank you for your dedication this past year.