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Why teachers can’t hotfoot it out of Kansas fast enough

There’s been a problem with underfunding of public education during the tenure of Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback (R). (AP Photo/John Hanna)

Teachers can’t hotfoot it out of Kansas fast enough, creating a substantial shortage expected only to get much worse. Why?

Well, there’s the low pay. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, the average teaching salary in 2012-2013 (the latest year for which data were available, in constant 2012-2013 dollars), was $47,464, lower than the pay in all but seven states (Arkansas, Florida, Mississippi, North Dakota, Oklahoma, South Dakota and West Virginia), though not by much in most of them.

Last year, job protections were cut by state lawmakers, who have also sought to reduce collective-bargaining rights for public employees.

Then there’s the severe underfunding for public education by the administration of Republican Gov. Sam Brownback, so much of a problem that some school districts closed early this past school year because they didn’t have the cash to keep operating. This story by Huffington Post, quoted Tim Hallacy, superintendent of Silver Lake Schools, as saying:

“I find it increasingly difficult to convince young people that education is a profession worth considering, and I have some veterans who think about leaving. In the next three years I think we’ll have maybe the worst teacher shortage in the country — I think most of that is self-inflicted.”

This June, a three-member district court panel ruled that parts of a new state school financing law violated the Kansas Constitution by allowing inequitable distribution of more than $4 billion in annual education funding. It ordered the state to give $54 million back to the public schools, though that part of the ruling was stayed indefinitely by the Kansas Supreme Court which quickly took up the issue. Now, the state’s entire funding formula for public education is up in the air.

And there’s more. According to the Topeka Capital-Journal,  the Kansas Board of Education decided in July to allow six school systems — including two of the largest in the state — to hire unlicensed teachers to ease the shortage. (Let the irony sink in for a minute.)  Specifically, the newspaper reported:

The measure will waive the state’s licensure regulations for a group of districts called the Coalition of Innovative Districts, a program that the Legislature established in 2013 based on model legislation from the American Legislative Exchange Council.

(Yes, ALEC, an organization that writes “model legislation” on a variety of topics that conservative legislators use in states  to make new laws that promote privatization, strikes again.  Under this legislation, districts can ignore most laws and regulations — including union contracts — that other public schools in a state must follow.)

Some Kansas educators and others tried to dissuade the board from taking this action, including James Neff, a chemistry teacher from Manhattan United School District 383, which the Capital-Journal quoted as saying that there is more to teaching than just knowing subject material. He was quoted as saying, “A subject matter specialist is just a subject matter specialist, but a teacher is something different.” Apparently not in Kansas.

Peter Greene, a teacher who writes the Curmudgucation blog, described it this way:

Kansas has taken a bold new step in making their schools Even Worse…. Kansas has entered the Chase Teachers Out of The State derby, joining states like North Carolina and Arizona in the attempt to make teaching unappealing as a career and untenable as a way for grown-ups to support a family. Kansas favors the two-pronged technique. With one prong, you strip teachers of job protections and bargaining rights, so that you can fire them at any time for any reason and pay them as little as you like. With the other prong, you strip funding from schools, so that teachers have to accomplish more and more on a budget of $1.95 (and if they can’t get it done, see prong number one). The result is predictable. Kansas is solidly settled onto the list of Places Teachers Work As Their Very Last Choice. It’s working out great for Missouri; their school districts have teacher recruitment billboards up in Kansas. But in Kansas, there’s a teacher shortage.

According to new data released by the Kansas Department of Education, at least 3,720 teachers left their jobs either by going to other states to teach, retiring or leaving the profession altogether, the Associated Press reported. That, the AP said, was substantially higher than in previous years.  KCUR reported in this story by Sam Zeff that Kansas is becoming such a hard place for teachers that many are crossing into Missouri to find jobs. The story says in part:

A billboard along the Kansas Turnpike eight miles east of Lawrence reads: Independence Missouri School District. Hiring teachers for 2015-2016…. In 2011, before huge tax cuts were enacted, only 85 applications for Missouri teaching licenses were filed with a Kansas address. In the next three years, as school budgets were slashed, those applications doubled. During that same period, applications for Missouri teaching licenses from Arkansas and Iowa remained steady.

How did all of this happen?

A 2014 report from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities said in part:

Tax cuts enacted in Kansas in 2012 were among the largest ever enacted by any state, and have since been held up by tax-cut proponents in other states as a model worth replicating.  In truth, Kansas is a cautionary tale, not a model.  As other states recover from the recent recession and turn toward the future, Kansas’ huge tax cuts have left that state’s schools and other public services stuck in the recession, and declining further — a serious threat to the state’s long-term economic vitality. Meanwhile, promises of immediate economic improvement have utterly failed to materialize….
*The large revenue losses extended and deepened the recession’s damage to schools and other state services.  Most states are restoring funding for schools after years of significant cuts, but in Kansas the cuts continue.  Governor Sam Brownback recently proposed another reduction in per-pupil general school aid for next year, which would leave funding 17 percent below pre-recession levels.  Funding for other services — colleges and universities, libraries, and local health departments, among others — also is way down, and declining.

And, at the moment, there seems to be nothing breaking the fall.