Kansas teachers who watched over the past two years as legislators made changes to their profession are getting politically active this summer, hoping to persuade voters it’s time for a change in Topeka.
After seeing laws enacted restricting paycheck contributions for political activities, eliminating administrative due process and easing the requirements for obtaining a teaching license, educators say they are fighting back.
“They are going after teachers and destroying the profession,” said Mark Desetti, government relations director for the Kansas National Education Association. “You add all this stuff up and it’s just hit a raw nerve.”
All 125 Kansas House seats are up for election this cycle starting with the Aug. 5 primary. Education groups plan to make their endorsements and campaign donations soon. Desetti estimated KNEA, the state’s largest teachers union, had more than $400,000 to spend in primary and general election races.
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“That’s a pretty good balance. We’re feeling that we’ve got resources,” he said.
Desetti and leaders of other organizations, such as Kansas Families for Education, said money was the key to fighting against groups like Americans for Prosperity, an organization founded by billionaire industrialist brothers Charles and David Koch, which lobbied for many of the changes in teacher laws.
Jeff Glendening, state director of Americans for Prosperity, said conservatives “chipped away” regulations viewed as protecting the institution of public schools, rather than helping students.
“I think Kansans are ready for a change in the education system. Kansans want their kids to succeed in life,” he said. “It’s not just about throwing money at the system. It’s about reforms.”
The changes were attached to a school finance bill legislators approved in April to comply with a Kansas Supreme Court ruling. Hundreds of teachers wearing red T-shirts camped out at the Statehouse to protest the changes.
Topeka special education teacher Stephanie Hansin was among them. She’s been spending her vacation attending forums and knocking on doors for candidates in northeast Kansas. “I figured if I wanted to have a state that respected teachers and children I needed to do something,” she said.
Judith Deedy, executive director of Game on for Kansas Schools, said the group will endorse candidates but not make contributions. Much of the focus, she said, was on getting parents and others to the polls.
“A lot of people are just waking up in a way that hasn’t caught their attention before,” she said. “We can pontificate all we want but we have to vote.”
Glendening said the election of conservative Republicans in the past two election cycles has changed the tone of education debates. Legislators are now talking about charter schools and scholarship programs to funnel resources directly to students instead of just increasing base spending for public schools.
“Education groups have been using an old (election) playbook that hasn’t worked for more than a decade,” he said. “It’s not about protecting the institution. It’s about preparing kids for life.”