By KNEA Government Relations and Communications

If you were on the third floor of the Kansas Statehouse shortly after the noon hour on Wednesday this week, you might have seen the Kansas Teachers of the Year as they spoke to legislators and answered questions.  Several elected officials gathered to offer words of congratulations and more.  This included a few, who just moments before, were in attendance at a “brown bag lunch” with the stated intent of allowing legislators and members of the Kansas State Board of Education to discuss issues of mutual concern.  

Those who attended discovered there were no brown bags and were left wondering how a partisan ambush lead by Sen. Molly Baumgardner, R-Louisberg, Rep. Kristey Williams, R- Andover, and later, Rep. Brenda Landwehr, R-Wichita, could ever be described as a discussion. We give the politicians credit for making clear their complete disdain for the state board of education, the Kansas Association of School Boards, United School Administrators-Kansas, and Kansas public school educators writ large.  

While brown bags and food were apparently not on the menu, the following highlights from the “discussion” make clear that public education was Wednesday’s lunch special.

Williams, chair of the House K-12 Budget Committee, believes schools have gotten off course and no longer instruct students but instead “manipulate their [students] personalities.” Her evidence? A purported conversation with a constituent who apparently represents all of Kansas.  

Baumgardner, chair of the Senate Education Committee, promises that the majority of members of her committee will “clawback” funding from districts that did not respond to a survey regarding IT security. Her intent is clear; when state politicians say “jump”, districts better respond with “how high” or districts and students will pay the price, literally.  

“We have to have teachers stop the practice of starting the school year or starting the semester asking [students] what pronouns they prefer,” Sen. Baumgardner said.  She went on to promise legislation that would define as indirect bullying the attempt to respect a student’s preferred pronouns. She went on to conflate the question as an attempt by teachers to “force a kid to identify sexual preference” saying that it is a form of outing the child and harms their psycho-social and sexual development, while also creating a “new stressor.”  When a state school board member spoke up saying that she had not heard of this widespread practice, Baumgardner immediately responded, “it’s out there and it’s very pervasive.”

We find it hard to understand how respect for a student’s preferred pronouns is deemed a “new stressor” while the impacts of a global pandemic are ignored within the same discussion- except to indict public education as a failure.   

Other topics of “discussion” included Rep. Williams accusing the state school board members of eliminating criteria to measure student achievement, suggesting that an exodus of parents away from public school may be a result of teaching “critical theories,” asking about pronouns, or because of a lack of academic rigor. 

When Rep. Chuck Schmidt, D-Wichita, a decades-long history teacher and school administrator, pushed back and stated that his students experienced measurable gains as a result of including diversity into the curriculum; his points were nearly drowned out by Rep. Williams as she chose to hold a side-bar conversation and completely disregard the respect that had been given to her while she spoke. Rep. Schmidt twice said, “unfortunately, my comments are being ignored by the people [in this room] who really need to hear them.”  Rep. Williams then left the discussion and the room.

However, the accusations and attacks continued unabated as Rep. Landwehr took up the baton and promptly used it to continue the assault on the state board of education members in attendance. She suggested teacher contracts prohibited school district officials from responding to pandemic impacts by limiting the ability to tack-on instructional days for days lost as a result of the pandemic.  She went on to imply that teachers’ unions were to blame for learning loss. 

Of course, this ignores what KNEA has stated publicly since the start of the pandemic and continues today. KNEA supports keeping schools open and students in classrooms with highly qualified and caring educators and in accordance with the recommendations of the medical experts.  She is correct, however, that KNEA advocates that a professional contract should include provisions that safeguard the health and well-being of professional educators. KNEA also supports local control over decision-making related to pandemic impacts.  It’s sad, but unfortunately not surprising, that Rep. Landwehr feels differently.  

Rep. Landwehr went on to proselytize that even though schools were finally deemed fully funded according to the state constitution in 2019; schools, educators, and students are still failures. Of course, her complaints ignore that schools have been underfunded for decades- we’re still recovering from the Brownback disaster.

“Long-time politicians like Brenda Landwehr push every day to advance their partisan agenda, silence the voice of educators, and interfere in the local control of curriculum and district operations. We believe that Kansas students are served best when we are able to recruit and retain highly qualified educators to work with parents and district leaders to determine the best education for every individual student. When politicians interfere kids lose,” said Sherri Schwanz, President of Kansas NEA.

“Public school opponents view this not as a moment of crisis when legislators should fulfill their duty to support Kansas public schools and our students, but instead as a moment of opportunity to point the finger of blame and shame at the professionals working hard under unprecedented circumstances to keep students safe and learning.  This is their playbook,” Schwanz said.

Sherri Schwanz, Kansas NEA President

While education professionals at every level and in every job role from bus drivers to support professionals, teachers to superintendents, and everyone who cares about students are doing everything possible to recover from the impacts of a global pandemic, partisan ultra-conservatives in the Kansas Legislature continue to open ever-wider the firehose of attacks. This is an effort to drown advocates and educators in endless attacks. At the same time, they ignore and limit local control all while their harmful policy moves towards law.

“We need our educators and advocates throughout Kansas to stay focused and aware, but don’t let yourself be distracted by the circus. Using emotional attacks is their effort to get you to look away while politicians interfere with classrooms and curriculum, push to gerrymander maps so that they can choose their voters, use vouchers schemes to destroy neighborhood schools, and attack the rights of professionals all at a time when Kansas is facing critical shortage educators,” Schwanz said.

Giving private school and home-schooled students more opportunities to access public education

Rep. Susan Estes, R-Wichita, introduced House Bill 2514 in the Kansas House K-12 Education Budget Committee this week that would give the families of private school and home-schooled students even more opportunities to access to what they consider to be the best parts of public education. While private and home-schooled students already have some ability to take classes or participate in the arts at their local public school, this bill allows for even greater access. The irony of this bill isn’t lost on us.

KNEA provided opposition testimony to this legislation that seeks to require each local board of education to allow any child to enroll part-time in the school district so that student can attend any course, program, or service offered by the school district if the student is also enrolled in a non-accredited private elementary or secondary school or in any other private, denominational or parochial school. Furthermore, it is the responsibility of each individual board of education to adopt a policy regarding the part-time enrollment of students and to make a “good faith attempt” to accommodate scheduling requests of students enrolling in the school district.

The bill creates an unfunded, vague mandate on public schools. There are a number of unanswered questions including, but not limited to:

  • Who is responsible for mapping progress of the private school student and ensuring success? Will these private school students be exempt from assessments?
  • Who will be held accountable for the progress of these private school students?
  • Who defines “good faith effort” when it comes to accommodating a private student at the public school? In the event that the parent disagrees that a “good faith effort” has been made, what is the procedure for handling any disagreements? Who will pay the costs of handling such disagreement procedures?
  • Are students allowed to request to join any course, program or service offered by the school district at any time during the year? Once a student is enrolled, is the student required to attend the class for the full semester? Can a student from a private school be denied access to a course because of capacity issues (i.e., if the course is full)? Furthermore, is it permissible for full time enrolled students to have priority over the part time student? For example, a full-time student decides to change their schedule to take an advanced science class but there is only one seat, and a private school student has requested to take it as well, who gets the priority?
  • Who determines the level at which the private school student can participate? For example, if a student wants to take an advanced math class, can the school district require them to demonstrate they are adequately prepared to be placed at that level?

This would be an administrative nightmare, but maybe that’s the point. The K-12 Education Budget Committee wants public schools to fill in for where the private schools — particularly non-accredited private schools — fall short. They want their cake and to eat it, too – so to speak.

Now that a hearing has been held on HB 2514, the committee will have the opportunity to work the bill and, ultimately, pass it out of committee for consideration by the House as a whole.

You get a computer science class! And you get a computer science class! And so do you!

A bill introduced this week by Rep. Steve Huebert, R- Valley Center, chair of the Kansas House Education Committee, would require all Kansas school districts to offer at least one computer science course. House Bill 2466 allocates $2 million to the Kansas State Board of Education and the Kansas Board of Regents to be used to provide funding for professional development as well as scholarships for future teachers of computer science. The thought is that it will incentivize people to become computer science teachers.

The Kansas Legislature does not have the constitutional authority to make mandates related to curriculum or graduation requirements. That duty and authority fall on the state board of education.

A hearing was scheduled on this bill for Tuesday of this week. However, it ended up being canceled due to action on redistricting maps on the floor of the House. The hearing is tentatively rescheduled for next Tuesday, Feb. 1.

The House Education Committee met briefly on Wednesday to allow the out-of-state lobbyist from to speak. During her testimony, she indicated that other states are investing considerably more in creating these types of incentive programs to build high-quality computer science programs in their states. She cited that Arkansas has started with $15 million and Wyoming is starting with $20 million.

Much like our opposition to Rep. Huebert’s attempts last year to make financial literacy a high school graduation requirement, KNEA is going to provide testimony opposing HB 2466.

Ad Astra 2 redistricting map goes to Governor’s desk

A gerrymandered redistricting map that would put the Democratic-leaning city of Lawrence into the more conservative Big First congressional district was sent to Gov. Laura Kelly’s desk this week.

Republicans say the redrawing of the four congressional districts is necessary due to population shifts. Democrats say it’s simply to make sure Democratic U.S. Rep. Sharice Davids doesn’t hold on to her 3rd Congressional District seat which encompasses Johnson and Wyandotte counties.

The House voted 79 to 37 to approve the Ad Astra 2 map while the Senate passed it 26 to 9. Among amplifying other disparities, it also disenfranchises communities of color and persons with disabilities by splitting Wyandotte County east and west along Interstate 70. This map has to be reviewed by a panel of federal judges.

The Ad Astra 2 map is one of four maps that are expected to be taken up by the House and Senate this session.

What we’re watching…

Rep. Jerry Stogsdill, D-Prairie Village, announced last week that he would be introducing a bill this week in the House Education Committee to restore due process. However, because of the four-hour redistricting debate on the House floor on Wednesday, the committee met for only about 15 minutes. We will be keeping an eye out for this bill.

We will be watching House K-12 Education Budget closely next week as they have hearings scheduled for the voucher bill (HB 2550) that has returned from last year; a bill (HB 2511) that legislates eligibility of students to participate in KSHSAA activities; and, a bill (HB 2553) that would open school districts to nonresident students. We also anticipate action to be taken on bills previously heard in all of the education committees. Keep in mind that things move very quickly and the bill numbers cited may change as the session goes on.