Johnson County teachers push back against avalanche of K-12 education reform bills

Educators argue political intrusion undermines public schools

By: - February 27, 2022 2:12 pm

Rep. Kristey Williams, a Republican from Augusta and chairwoman of the House K-12 Education Budget Committee, is a proponent of substantive reform of the state’s public education system serving about 500,000 students. (Noah Taborda/Kansas Reflector)

OLATHE — Prairie Trail Middle School teacher Kelly Ruiz despairs about the bundle of bills under consideration by the Kansas Legislature based on the premise of educational malfeasance in K-12 public schools.

Republican House and Senate members have demonstrated interest in shifting more public tax dollars to private schools, highlighting struggles of public school students during the COVID-19 pandemic, denouncing teachers for allegedly advancing critical race theory, raising the possibility to labeling as offensive or removing library materials, weakening student vaccination programs, imposing broad mandates on publication of curriculum materials to an online database and imposing a parental bill of rights.

“We have to stop the legislation,” Ruiz said during a forum Saturday in Olathe. “It undermines what we do in the classroom. It disrespects and disregards us as professionals. Trust us. We know what saves kids. We know what inspires kids.”

Rep. Kristey Williams, a Republican who chairs the House K-12 Education Budget Committee, and Sen. Molly Baumgardner, the Republican chairwoman of the Senate Education Committee, have been working on the bulk of bills some educators find objectionable. Much of that legislative agenda is expected to be considered by lawmakers during the second half of the annual session that starts Tuesday.

“There is one central question that I try to circle back to when considering importing policy as chair of the House’s K-12 Education Budget Committee: What is best for kids?” Williams said. “With that central theme of kids first, or kids before systems, our committee has heard four bills providing more school choice, both public and private choices.”

In the November school board elections in Johnson County, issues of critical race theory, mask mandates during the pandemic and transparency of school district officials were prominent themes raised by candidates and disgruntled parents.

Annie Goodson, a Blue Valley West High School teacher, said during the forum she was concerned about willingness of young teachers to stick with education careers given challenges posed by COVID-19 and eagerness of politicians to leave a heavy footprint on an education system in Kansas serving about 500,000 students.

“They’re entering a pretty hostile atmosphere right now,” Goodson said.

Olathe third-grade teacher Jeremie Tharp, who is in her 18th year as an educator, said assertions public school teachers were lazy, biased or in the profession to indoctrinate children were wrong.

She said she’d sacrificed parts of her own young family — a third-grade son and sixth-grade daughter — to place her in a better position to impact the lives of students at Pleasant Ridge Elementary. At times, she said, it’s not clear she has the stamina to push through to the next year.

Tharp keeps a “smile file” of notes from parents and students that document how she made a difference even when things didn’t go as planned.

“It is where Hudson told me I am his most favorite teacher of all, and Everly said that every day when she walks into class, the thing she likes most is me. It’s where Maggie wrote that in my classroom is the only place she feels like she is home and can rest, and Avery told me I was her best friend.”

Matthew Shulman, a social studies teacher at Blue Valley Northwest High School, said the quest of some politicians to be confrontational with public school educators would result in quality people turning away from the profession or prompting experienced teachers to resign.

“Instead of pushing people away,” he said, “we need to somehow find a way to support our teachers.”

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Tim Carpenter
Tim Carpenter

Tim Carpenter has reported on Kansas for 35 years. He covered the Capitol for 16 years at the Topeka Capital-Journal and previously worked for the Lawrence Journal-World and United Press International. He has been recognized for investigative reporting on Kansas government and politics. He won the Kansas Press Association's Victor Murdock Award six times. The William Allen White Foundation honored him four times with its Burton Marvin News Enterprise Award. The Kansas City Press Club twice presented him its Journalist of the Year Award and more recently its Lifetime Achievement Award. He earned an agriculture degree at Kansas State University and grew up on a small dairy and beef cattle farm in Missouri. He is an amateur woodworker and drives Studebaker cars.