From teaching kids to wooing Kansas voters
Grade-school teacher Brett Parker now is a pupil of campaign politics, gleaning lessons as he knocks on doors in Overland Park, Kansas House District 29.
He is among dozens of current or retired educators across Kansas seeking legislative seats in Topeka.
The curriculum can be tough. On one recent outing, sweat soaked through Parker’s polo shirt. At 6 p.m. the heat index was up around 103, and few residents were answering.
Parker, a Democrat, figured: A.) They’re still at work. B.) They don’t want air conditioning to escape from their homes. C.) They aren’t interested in hearing out a politician.
Probably C, he said.
“I’m a public schoolteacher in the area,” Parker told one who cracked open the door. “This is my last week of summer break.”
Canvassing while he can, Parker, 31, knows that the tedious task of rounding up votes soon will give way to grading papers at night.
Other Kansas educators-turned-politicians face the same. But many are willing to put in the hours in hopes of repairing public schools from blows they say the statehouse has delivered in recent years.
The Kansas Association of School Boards earlier this summer estimated that maybe 50 current or former members of local boards, school administrators and teachers from across the state were candidates in legislative elections.
Not an easy group to quantify, “educators” have long been common candidates for legislative office. No group tracks them all, so it’s difficult to know how many survived the primaries, or even whether this year is much different than most. But those running in the 2016 general elections are getting more attention than usual, an association spokesman said.
And teacher groups say they feel momentum building this year for heavier public-school representation in Topeka.
Several political newcomers with school ties prevailed Aug. 2 in contested primaries.
They included Republican Shelee Brim of Shawnee, who retired in May after teaching the last 17 years in the De Soto School District. In defeating incumbent 39th District Rep. Charles Macheers and Owen Donohoe, a former Kansas House member, she joined a field of GOP moderates who scored victories against more conservative and seasoned Republicans statewide.
Brim made official her leap to politics just days after saying farewell to her final first-grade class. On June 1 she filed her candidacy papers in Topeka, just 15 minutes before the deadline.
“It was not on my bucket list,” Brim said.
Her decision was motivated by “scary tax cuts” under Gov. Sam Brownback’s economic policies, she said, and by deep uncertainties about school funding that await lawmakers next year.
Brim also seeks to help make Kansas a place where teachers want to stay. During her 11 years at Prairie Ridge Elementary, only one career teacher other than herself had worked long enough to retire with benefits.
Kansas conservatives in recent years stepped up their attacks on the funding demands that the school districts, the state Supreme Court and teachers unions — including those backing some of this year’s candidates — expect taxpayers to bear.
Even moderate Republicans such as Rep. James Todd, who is Parker’s opponent and says he welcomes teachers in the political ring, notes in his campaign material that “K-12 now receives record funding,” with per-pupil spending in Johnson County districts approaching $15,000.
Still, many educators are feeling demoralized in the Sunflower State.
A report this month out of a state task force on teacher supply showed teacher assignments across Kansas shrinking steadily because of licensed instructors leaving the profession. In the last academic year 1,075 such losses were reported compared with 669 in 2012-2013.
The Kansas National Education Association doesn’t track the number of current or former teachers — much less other school employees — who campaign for state office. “There’s always been a number of teachers who get involved and oftentimes they’ve just retired,” said Mark Desetti, the union’s director of governmental affairs.
“This year teachers seem more energized than ever to jump into the process,” he said.
Consider House District 15 in Olathe.
There, incumbent Rep. Erin Davis, a Republican attorney, turned back a primary challenge by Kim Palcic, a teacher at Madison Place Elementary. Endorsed by the parents advocacy group Game On for Kansas Schools, Palcic managed to pull 27 percent in a three-person race for a House district that widely favored Brownback in 2014.
For the general election, Davis will face another current teacher, Democrat R. Paul McCorkle.
McCorkle teaches history and government at Raymore-Peculiar High School in Missouri. But he lives in Olathe, where he attended school and has a daughter yet to finish high school. He formerly taught in Kansas City, Kan.
“I’m teaching government on the Missouri side but living the repercussions with my family on the Kansas side,” said McCorkle, a first-time seeker of elective office. “It’s better to be a teacher on the Missouri side. Missouri has a much better retirement system....
“I constantly tell my high-school students, ‘If you don’t vote or get involved, don’t gripe,’ ” he added.
So he’s getting involved as never before.
At the Kansas Democratic caucuses McCorkle was chosen a delegate for presidential hopeful Bernie Sanders. Education advocates were taken by McCorkle’s persuasive speaking style and urged him to run for office.
His Missouri colleagues weren’t so enthusiastic, he said: “They were all shocked. Here on the Missouri side, nobody (in the classroom) is doing this.”
The Ray-Pec school board rejected McCorkle’s request for an unpaid leave of absence to attend the Kansas legislative session beginning in January, should he win election.
As a result, in order to serve his Kansas term, should he win, McCorkle may need to surrender his Missouri teaching job and seek other employment next year.
Davis, the legislator whom McCorkle hopes to beat in Olathe, said she wasn’t surprised by the wave of educators aiming to unseat Kansas Republicans this fall.
“The teachers union is largely going to try to capitalize on the rhetoric that certain lawmakers don’t support public education,” said Davis, who was first elected in 2014. “But that rhetoric is difficult to apply to me.”
She has two children in the Olathe public schools, has been involved in the PTA and in-school projects, and has given to the Olathe Public School Foundation.
“I’ve voted in favor of every school funding proposal that’s come to me,” Davis said. “If that’s not supporting public education I don’t know what it is.”
Her GOP primary opponent Palcic said many in Olathe cringe at the notion of taxes going up to support schools. They don’t like how the present funds are allocated within districts, she said.
When Palcic canvassed door-to-door before her defeat, “I came across a lot of people who thought our schools had enough money,” she said.
In rural west-central Kansas, another educator — Stafford Schools Superintendent Mary Jo Taylor — advanced in a three-person Republican primary for the District 33 Senate seat. Taylor said she was driven to run after several years of being unable to establish a good working relationship with the sitting senator.
“For the last three years,” she said, “we’ve been wringing our hands and asking, ‘What else are we going to cut in order to survive?’ ”
She said schools in property-rich Johnson County and other Kansas suburbs are lucky by comparison.
“They have resources we’d never dream of having here,” said Taylor, who lives in a Senate district that spans 11 counties. “People here who lose their schools are going to see their towns blow away.”
In 2013 a group called Johnson County Educators was founded by a half-dozen teachers active in the NEA. They formed a political action committee to help raise funds for campaigns committed to boosting public education.
The PAC designation soon was dropped, but the group’s grass-roots activism has never been stronger, said organizer Barb Casey.
Buoyed by 75 volunteers in all kinds of school jobs, union and non-union, Johnson County Educators will run a phone bank for local candidates come September.
“Some will say we’re doing it to protect our jobs, but that’s really at the bottom of our list,” said Casey. “It’s about saving education. So we’re protecting our children.”
She and other school advocates say teachers typically balk at getting political, thinking it’s not germane to teaching. Some fear that open partisanship may rile some parents or school boards.
Parker works in the English Language Learners program at Olathe’s Countryside Elementary. He said the struggles he sees extend beyond stagnant school resources or slipping teacher morale.
Poverty among pupils has grown, he said, and their mental-health needs must be addressed.
His school contract allows Parker unpaid leave for “political service.” In taking that leave should voters elect him, Parker will teach only in the fall, forfeit thousands of dollars in salary and pull $88 a day making laws in Topeka.
“Nobody’s getting rich doing this,” he said.
Parker’s shirt only gets wetter as he canvasses House District 29, where he lives. But he finds a receptive ear when he knocks on Lara Schneider’s door.
“I think it’s great that you teach kids,” she says.
As for her vote? “I’d have to educate myself more,” says Schneider. “I’m sure you can appreciate that, being a teacher.”