Northeast Joco

Grassroots effort puts focus on education

Updated: 2013-08-08T16:43:01Z

By ROXIE HAMMILL

Special to The Star

Moving from private school in Kansas City to a public one in Overland Park was a rude awakening for Lynne Covitz of Prairie Village.

It wasn’t that the teaching was bad or that her third-grader didn’t like his new classmates.

It was the class size. “We went from 20 kids with two teachers (in Kansas City) to 28 kids and one teacher” at Tomahawk Elementary, she said.

That was the reason Covitz decided to attend her first meeting of Game On for Kansas Schools, a group of Johnson County parents and educators who have begun to push back against cuts in state spending on schools.

“It’s not just a concern for him, but for other kids in the district,” she said.

She was not alone. A core group of about 25 showed up for a recent strategy meeting for the group, which has grown steadily since it began as a small group of parents at Belinder Elementary in Prairie Village roughly three years ago.

They talked about their top concerns: Class size, lack of new library books or teaching supplies, the fact that buildings no longer get daily custodial service. But mostly, they talked about how to reach more parents with information about what’s happening in the statehouse in Topeka.

Game On is a grassroots group — so much so that it has no bank account or membership rolls, says leader Judith Deedy. About a thousand people like it on Facebook, and the email list reaches 7,500, she said.

At its core are two state representatives, plus members of Kansans for Education, Mainstream Coalition, MoveOn.org, county Democrats, the state teachers’ union and a member of the Shawnee Mission Board of Education. And, of course, parents worried about what might happen when legislators open up another session next year.

Given the recent actions of some legislators, it’s likely school funding will be front and center in the next session. Last time around, legislators introduced a constitutional amendment to limit the court’s role in state funding. That was in reaction to a decision by a judicial panel that legislators were breaking their constitutional charge to adequately fund education. The panel went on to suggest a specifically higher per-pupil rate.

Lawmakers who support the amendment have said the court should not be in the business of setting the state aid rate. But Deedy and some opponents suspect it’s more than that. The amendment, and another that would change the way state appellate court judges are chosen, are retribution for the unfavorable ruling, they say.

A lot of parents might not make the association between rules on judge selection and whether their schools are mopped every day, Deedy said. But Game On aims to change that by getting the word out and urging them to write or call their representative. The group is also planning a YouTube video and will support people who want to testify in Topeka by arranging baby-sitting, she said.

It will take a lot of vocal parents to stop what Deedy and Game On supporters see as a push to privatize education by conservative groups such as the American Legislative Exchange Council and Americans for Prosperity, she said.

Those groups and others have started a nationwide push on such issues as vouchers to help families pay to put their kids in private schools, loosening up the regulation of charter schools, and tax credits for corporate scholarship programs that can be used by families for private schools.

“It’s a starve-the-beast mentality,” Deedy said. Conservative groups have fostered a belief the public school system is broken and should be replaced, she said, while also eyeing the possibility of diverting some of that education spending into for-profit schools.

Although Game On has not yet reached the point of having foes in the Statehouse, legislators have at least heard of it, thanks to Ousley’s march.

State Sen. Greg Smith, an Overland Park Republican, said he’d heard of the effort and had looked through the group’s Facebook page. Smith, a teacher in the Shawnee Mission district, said he and Game On basically want the same thing — an efficient and effective school system.

“What they want and what I want are the same thing,” he said. “The methodology of how to get there is probably something we wouldn’t agree on.”

However he said he hopes he and the group could work together toward that common goal.

The group has its roots in the Belinder Elementary PTA around three years ago. That’s when Deedy started researching some of the issues coming through the Statehouse. As she started posting votes of local legislators on Facebook, she came to realize many parents were not aware of what was going on in Topeka.

“That was my ‘Aha’ moment,” she said. Some lawmakers would claim to be pro-education, and then vote for things that would hurt school funding, she said.

But parents were unaware, she said. “I said I don’t think it’s that they don’t care. It’s just that they don’t have the information they need to get involved,” Deedy said.

Game On really started to gather ground in March, when Heather Ousley, a Merriam mother of three school-age children, walked to Topeka as a way to draw attention to the school funding issues.

“I want everyone from Kansas to be aware that it affects everyone in the state,” Ousley said.

Schools have laid off staff, cut extra-curricular activities and increased class sizes to deal with the low state aid, Ousley said.

“We need people to be loud,” Ousley said.

Donna Bysfield, the Shawnee Mission Board of Education member at the meeting, said she goes to be a liaison with the district. Groups like Game On are needed to keep parents more informed, she said. “I would say they’ve been helpful. They’ve stayed true to being strictly concerned with education and not politics,” Bysfield said.

State Rep. Barbara Bollier, a Republican from Mission Hills and Sen. Terrie Huntington, a Republican from Fairway, are both regular Game On attendees. They say the group’s impact is growing as it convinces more parents to contact their representatives.

“If you have a large group of constituents talking about education, you’ll listen,” said Huntington.

Jane Mallonee, an art teacher, agrees. “The point is, I care and everybody in the group cares about the kids and we want the best for them. If that means rattling cages in Topeka, we’re going to do it.”

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