Guest Commentary

We must invest in Kansas teachers for our children’s future

At Wyandotte High School, the students come with challenges that only make the work of educating them that much harder. It’s also where the Kansas school funding debate hits home.
At Wyandotte High School, the students come with challenges that only make the work of educating them that much harder. It’s also where the Kansas school funding debate hits home. kmyers@kcstar.com

In the Kansas City, Kansas Public Schools, we are ignoring a big part of the solution for better quality schools. The recent front-page Kansas City Star article featuring struggling Wyandotte High School points to many difficult truths that need to be reckoned with.

Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback and his ultra-conservative buddies in the Legislature are intentionally starving public schools, along with other essential government institutions. We must keep fighting these terrible decisions.

But while the disastrous impact of recent tax and funding policy-making is one dire problem that needs to be fixed in public schools, another local challenge is the astounding level of teacher turnover in the Kansas City, Kan., school district. Indeed, more than 250 teachers chose to leave last year alone.

Washington High School has dozens of non-credentialed, long-term substitute teachers attempting to fill holes left by departing full-time teachers, and Washington is not alone in the district.

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Teacher turnover here really matters because, according to many education research firms along with just about anyone who can remember a powerful learning experience, the teacher is the most important factor in student achievement. When the district’s leadership chooses to simply watch so many teachers leave, rather than try to give them reasons to stay, we do our kids a tragic disservice.

We cannot just wring our hands and stare at what this recent Star article leads us to believe is the pitiful state of our schools, teachers, and students. Instead, we need to do what is proven most effective when it comes to student learning.

We need to do what is right. This means not just assuming teachers will wait an entire year for a contract, as we often do. Currently, our negotiations have gone to “fact-finding” because our district refuses to compromise.

Compromise in this case of course means making trusted partners of our teachers and allowing them to earn salaries that are competitive with surrounding districts. A close look at the numbers reveals this is possible.

Indeed, the district has proposed a benefits package that is similar in cost to what teachers think is reasonable. The proposal, however, lags far behind expected career teacher salary numbers when compared to districts such as Blue Valley, where most would argue the teaching conditions are better. Kansas City, Kansas Public Schools teachers are simply asking to be moved up the promised yearly step on our salary schedule. Nothing more.

Teachers, like anyone, need reasonable pay to support our families. Many are not getting that right now, and more than a few depend on government assistance to make ends meet. Many others struggle to pay back loans for the degrees required to teach well.

Paying us appropriately would go a long way toward building teacher commitment to this district and our kids. But even putting money aside, our district diverges significantly from the school districts of Olathe, Blue Valley, and Shawnee Mission, among others, by not guaranteeing teachers fair dismissal hearings. Putting this due-process item in the contract would keep a number of teachers from fleeing to these suburban districts and convince them to put their trust in a district that trusts them. And best of all, this costs the district very little.

Furthermore, all teachers know how important having time to plan is when it comes to delivering great lessons. The importance of planning is important to all professions, but I would wager few have the dearth of minutes available that teachers do. Again, Kansas City, Kan., lags behind our surrounding districts in that we provide teachers less time to plan these lessons.

Some elementary teachers in our district report they must use as few as 10 or 15 minutes at a shot to grade a couple papers or create that innovative lesson. Good luck.

Because our district seems reluctant to invest in trusting relationships, even by ensuring that the teachers of Kansas City, Kan., kids will have things like adequate planning time and due process — things that are nearly free — teachers leave the district in astonishing numbers.

Giving teachers a competitive salary would send the strongest message of all that the district invests in the people who spend the most time working with our kids.

Finally, while they are also vastly underpaid for the hard work they do, our superintendent and administrators make salaries that outpace 90 percent of Kansas districts. So, when we are told that our district is just too poor to do any better for teachers, something just doesn’t add up.

As someone who has spent the majority of his teaching career in the Kansas City, Kan., school district, I can assure you that many great teachers want to stay for their students, but they just need a meaningful message that our work matters.

Please contact your board of education members and tell them to give closer scrutiny to what they are being told because investing in the people who invest the most in our kids is essential.

Michael Rebne has been a teacher for 11 years and currently teaches English, physics, and engineering in the Kansas City, Kansas Public Schools. He has spent his entire career as a classroom teacher in urban school districts.

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