Not On Our Watch, Part 2: Kansas educators, parents keep lawmakers in check

Kansas public school supporters at the statehouse

Photo: Kansas public school supporters at the statehouse

By Amanda Litvinov

This is the second in a series of three case studies. Read about a winning partnership of Florida parents and educators here, and the third case study from Seattle here.

There are no better advocates for students than parents and educators. Who is in a better position to know where kids excel and where they struggle, and what the school community needs to help them succeed?

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But there are other adults who have an awful lot of influence on students’ lives, too, including lawmakers and lobbyists.

For too long, self-proclaimed reformers have had the ear of policymakers at every level. They’ve sold their “reform” snake oil in the form of voucher schemes, unaccountable charter outfits and manic testing regimes that put schools in peril rather than provide meaningful assessment.

Enter the resistance, led by parents and educators speaking up on behalf of kids.

“We might not have oceans and mountains here in Kansas, but we have a long history of great public schools and friendly neighbors and wonderful communities,” said mother of three Heather Ousley.

“There is so much riding on this fight for public education, and it’s clear that if parents and teachers work together, we will have more success than if the parents alone try to do something or if the teachers alone try to do something.”

The threat:

After losing many moderate lawmakers in the 2012 elections, Kansas students, families and educators faced a slew of proposed legislation that would cut education funding in the short term, and endanger it further in the long-term through changes to the tax structure—all this despite the fact that a Kansas district court ruled in January that the state legislature had failed to fund an appropriate public education for Kansas students. Other anti-public education bills encouraged corporate donations to charter schools and threatened educator rights to advocate for student learning conditions through collective bargaining.

The action:

Barb Casey
Teacher Barb Casey

Kansas educators knew they had to join forces with parents to have maximum impact at the statehouse. That’s exactly what led fifth-grade teacher Barb Casey of Shawnee Mission to seek out parents who were also involved in the politics of public education. She met with the PTA and began attending meetings of a grassroots parent group called Game On for Kansas Schools. Talk turned to how the parents could help support Kansas NEA’s big lobby day, which inspired parent Heather Ousley to think big.

“She called to tell me she had decided to walk the 60 miles from her home to the statehouse in Topeka,” said Casey, who then sprang into action finding teachers who would walk portions of the journey with her for companionship and safety. “We all walked with her from the KNEA building to the capital, where we had educators holding signs and a press conference that drew a lot of attention.”

“I just knew how important it was for parents to be visible, because sometimes lawmakers won’t listen when teachers are trying to make the case on their own,” said Ousley. “We were concerned that a lot of bad legislation might be pushed through over spring break while many people were out of town, and I figured walking 20 miles per day was doable considering the cause.”

The victory!

Heather Ousley speaks to the press after walking 60 miles to Topeka.

With educator and parent voices ringing out in unison, several devastating bills were defeated, including the charter school bill; the one that sought to diminish collective bargaining rights; and another that would effectively remove the education association’s ability to communicate with members about pro-public education candidates.

The takeaways:

This teacher-parent team says it was essential to articulate just how they could help each other.

“I think many educators are naturally reluctant to talk politics, but we just have to ask people to join the fight on behalf of students,” said Casey who says she’s already looking forward to changing the makeup of the legislature in 2014. “Reach out, and be accessible. Always pick up your phone!”

“We love our teachers and wish we could do more for them,” said Ousley. “Parents are open and receptive especially if you keep them informed about what’s going on in your district and in the statehouse.

“I know that some people don’t think politics is polite conversation, but if my children’s education is being screwed up, I’m no longer in the mood to worry about being polite.”

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