Members of Great Bend’s National Education Association still wait for answers from legislators they feel turned their back on them. The education finance bill took educators by surprise as it quickly made its way through the Senate and the House, to be passed on to Governor Brownback April 6. It includes legislation that takes away hard-fought protections against arbitrary termination. The bill, HB 2506, is now in the hands of Governor Sam Brownback, who indicated Monday during a visit to Emporia State University that he would sign it into law.
“I’d really like to know why they are so scared of us,” Judy Johnson, Great Bend Middle School guidance counselor said Monday.
She was joined by Emily Mulch, media specialist at Great Bend High School. Mulch was in Topeka last weekend for a meeting with the Kansas National Education Association and joined educators from around the state who occupied the gallery of the state capitol as members of met to pass the bill.
Sen. Mitch Holmes was also in Topeka that weekend, and voted in favor of the bill. In an earlier article, he told The Tribune he had been influenced on the earlier Senate version of the bill to vote yes because constituents had asked him to pull the reins on Common Core, another aspect of the same bill. When asked what prompted him to vote yes on the final bill, he stated his primary motivation was the bill specifically addressed the issue of equalization that the court brought to the attention of the legislature in March.
“Though I don’t believe the court has the right to direct the legislature, I believed their conclusion that there was a disequalizing effect that occurred,” he said. “I agreed with how the court opined. They showed restraint this time, and I was glad they had done that and did not put us into another state of chaos.”
And while he said he did not believe everything in the bill was good, trade-offs had to be made.
For Mulch and Johnson, eliminating state mandated due process was a poor one.
Johnson has taught since the early 1970s, around the time due process was won for teachers.
“I started teaching at a time when the man next to me made thousands of dollars more than I did, simply because he was a male,” she said. “I had an administrator tell me the reason I was not paid as much as a male colleague was because I’m a second income, therefore it’s not as important.”
Winning due process made it possible for many other battles over equality issues to be fought, and for teachers to be treated as professionals, she said. The decision by the legislature to wipe away a 35-year tradition hits her hard.
“I was very angry that there were people who had not taken the time to allow this to be debated on the floor of the house and the senate,” she said. “It was stuck into the bill as it came out of committee, and then was voted on with no discussion in either body.”
Bad teachers or poor leadership?
Holmes favored the due process element because he felt it would make it possible for districts to fire bad teachers who have been protected because of tenure. But according to Mulch and Johnson, this is a misnomer.
“Teachers have always been fireable,” Mulch said. Due process ensures they are given a reason why, and that they have the right to a hearing in a court of law if they disagree. And that is something that rarely happens.
In fact, USD Superintendent Tom Vernon can’t recall an incident where a teacher let go has taken the district to court in the two decades he has served Great Bend schools. (Statewide, it only happens an average of 10 times a year out of 293 unified school districts, according to the Kansas National Education Association.)
Mulch feels that’s because USD 428 has a good evaluation system, which the GBNEA and USD 428 administration collaborated on as it was developed over time. First, teachers are hired on a three-year probationary basis. If they don’t make the cut, they are let go within that time period with no repercussions for the district. Once they are full-fledged faculty members, they receive regular evaluations, and are given specific recommendations of areas they need to improve on. If they don’t show progress in time, usually they will move on themselves, she said.
“We’ve seen the stories in the media where administrators have been quoted as saying, “Well w just couldn’t get rid of that teacher,” Johnson said. “That’s an administrator who is not a strong leader, and is not doing their job.”
The right to know what they’ve done wrong and a chance to improve is what Johnson says teachers want and deserve, and won with due process. Not a guaranteed job for life.
Impact on students
“It’s never been about us,” Mulch said. “It’s always been about the students. Every decision we make, the student needs to be at the top.”
She and Johnson feel legislators have lost sight of how the decision may affect kids. Teachers need to feel secure that they aren’t at risk of losing their jobs if they need to advocate for their students for special testing or help, even if they suspect they may run up against opposition from principals or administration. And for teachers who double as coaches, there are worries that they could be treading on thin ice if parents aren’t pleased with the position or amount of play time their children receive.
Mulch and Johnson are quick to point out that they feel supported by USD 428, but policies outlast the careers of present-day administration, principals and board members.
When The Tribune brought these concerns to Holmes, he agreed they may have some merit, and laws may need to be tweaked in order to ensure the proper protections.
“These are situations where we may want to go back and tweak policies,” he said. “They are legitimate concerns and I’m happy to discuss them with constituents and colleagues.”
Holmes said in a conversation with his own mother, a retired school teacher, the topic of another risk to students came up. Currently, all teachers are mandatory reporters of suspected abuse. He said that law many need to be strengthened in light of this new law.
Holmes said there is a misperception that the legislature is out to get teachers. As he sees it, the new law simply puts the control over due process into the hands of local school boards.
“All this law does is take away the state mandate,” he said. “It is still in the hands of the local school boards if they choose to extend tenure and due process.”
He believes some districts, especially those who face challenges with recruiting, may do just that.
While many bills can take seemingly lengthy periods to be debated and heard before they come to vote, HB 2506 travelled through the senate and the house and to the floor for a final vote in less than four days. According to Holmes, that was largely because the court’s decision on Gannon v. State of Kansas came so late in the session, carrying with it a deadline of July 1 for the legislator to present a plan for equalization.
“My opinion is, this is a situation where the clock ran out,” he said. While waiting till the last minute to push a bill through has been a tactic in the some instances, he did not believe this was the strategy this time. As soon as the court gave its decision, work began right away, he said.
Johnson and Mulch still believe the bill could have been set aside until legislators come back after April 30, which would have allowed time for discussion.
“Not only are we members of the NEA, but we are also constituents,” Johnson said. “We’re entitled to our voice, our vote, and to be represented.” She hopes parents begin to question if this bill is really in the best interest of their children too.
Mulch, who joined fellow teachers in the gallery at Capitol in Topeka that weekend, and tried to find Rep. Marshall Christman and Rep. Troy Waymaster who have in the past expressed support for teachers, to no avail.
They, too, represent GBNEA teachers residing in other Barton County cities. She felt betrayed when they learned these representatives voted no, because in the forums, she was led to believe Rep. Waymaster supported public education, and in past dealings with Christman, she had been assured that he supported teachers. The Tribune attempted to contact both Representatives for comment by phone and by email, but neither could be reached for comment.
Only Rep. John Edmonds voted no on the bill.
“Edmonds honored our voice and our position,” Johnson said. Several teachers contacted him before the vote, and had shared with one another his responses to emails, she said.
Holmes said he spoke with school board members who felt the provision was a good one, but when pressed, admitted he had not spoken with any representatives of USD 428.
Future of teaching
Holmes said he believes the issue of due process is being blown out of proportion. He realizes there is a shortage of teachers willing to locate to rural areas and does not believe that school boards are looking to get rid of experienced people for new blood just for budgetary purposes.
“I don’t think this is going to suddenly create vacancies that weren’t already going to happen,” he said. “We need to step back and take a breath and see what is really going to happen.”
Johnson remembers when she was a young teacher. Then, due process wasn’t a top concern of hers. Those protections weren’t available until the fourth year of teaching in a district, after all.
But Mulch isn’t sure the decision won’t make it even harder for districts, especially in Western Kansas, to attract new graduates in the future.
“I would think twice,” she said. “If I were young and unencumbered, I would be looking at other states.”