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Teachers ask parents to trust them as Kansas lawmakers pursue 'micromanaging legislation'

Jodi Fortino
C'Awna Ford-Johnson, a teacher at Blue Valley Northwest High School, spoke at a recent town hall aimed at addressing some of the legislation facing Kansas schools.

More than twenty students and teachers from Kansas City-area schools gathered to support public educators against bills in the Kansas legislature that they say undermines their profession.

Jeremie Tharp has been happy to give her all for 18 years as a third grade teacher at Pleasant Ridge Elementary in Olathe, Kansas, working hard and even going to students' soccer games after school.

Despite the long hours and lack of pay, Tharp said it was all worth it for the fulfillment she got out of teaching.

But now, with the onslaught of the pandemic, a new wave of parents voicing their complaints at school board meetings, and legislation that advocates say threatens public education, Tharp may have had enough.

"For a long time, it was worth it. Right?" she said to more than twenty students and teachers from schools in Johnson County, and Kansas City, Kansas, at a town hall on Saturday.

"But now, not only are we still doing those things, but there's these people who are telling us we don't work hard enough, that we don't want to be at work, that we don't know how to do our jobs, that we're trying to indoctrinate their kids," Tharp said. "It's like I'm literally sacrificing every part of my life for your kids. And you're still giving me a hard time about it. How long do I continue to do that?"

The panel, held at the Indian Creek Library in Olathe, was hosted by Kansas State Sen. Cindy Holscher, an Overland Park Democrat, and Freedom to Learn, a Kansas political action committee dedicated to supporting public educators.

“Over the course of the past 18 months, past two years, we've heard a lot from a pretty vocal minority talking about issues and problems they have with our schools,” Holscher said. “But we haven't heard quite as much from the students and the teachers who have been working through the pandemic in our schools.”

Holscher said that there are bills moving through the Kansas legislature that would make the jobs of public educators much more difficult.

One proposed Parents’ Bill of Rights would, in part, require school districts in Kansas to create an “academic transparency portal” that would disclose any learning materials, activities and curriculum used for student instruction. It would also give parents the right to object or withdraw their child from any learning material that “impairs” their firmly held beliefs. Similar bills have been introduced in the Missouri legislature.

Jodi Fortino
KCUR 89.3
Ephren Taylor, a senior at Blue Valley North High School, told Saturday's audience that students benefit from learning about topics like diversity.

Both students and teachers expressed concerns at the town hall that such legislation undermines public educators and devalues their credibility.

Courtney Buffington, a teacher at Blue Valley High School for the last 21 years, said all teachers want is the freedom to do their jobs.

“With all the micromanaging legislation that's being proposed, we're not going to be able to do our job. It's going to be like being taught by robots and I didn't sign up for that,” Buffington said.

Beyond legislation, teachers said they’re also facing accusations from parents claiming that they are trying to “indoctrinate” their kids with curriculum like so-called critical race theory (CRT).

Students at the panel pushed back against the idea that they are being taught CRT in their schools, and said that in fact, they are being taught accurate lessons on history.

“They're just teaching basic history. Kids need to know basic history so they can go and connect with other people in their world,” said Ephren Taylor, a senior at Blue Valley North High School. “And then they need to know about things like diversity, it's important for people to be able to collaborate with each other.”

Another educator said that the movement against CRT has made her job tough as a Black teacher.

“There are parents that don't feel comfortable with me teaching their children. It's hard to have that and to want to continue to move forward if something like this were to be passed,” C'Awna Ford-Johnson, a teacher at Blue Valley Northwest High School said.

The panel also expressed concerns about a bill in the Kansas Senate that would allow low-income or at-risk students to use state tax dollars to pay for enrollment at private schools.

Teachers at the panel said these kinds of bills devalue the importance of public education.

“Public school was founded on the idea of bridging equity gaps in our community. And we cannot do that if we don't serve all children where they are,” said Tabitha Rosproy, an early childhood support teacher for the Olathe School District.

Panelists said these challenges are driving educators away from the profession. A survey by Freedom to learn found that 80% of 781 teachers from 20 Kansas districts would not recommend their profession to friends and family.

A survey by the Missouri State Teachers Association said about half of 2,800 teachers surveyed considered leaving the profession often or very often.

Educators at Saturday’s panel said teachers need more support, whether it's more pay, more time to plan during the day or more help in the classroom. But they also said they need parent’s trust.

“As professionals, trust us. We know what saves kids, we know what inspires kids, we know what motivates kids,” said Kelly Ruiz, a teacher at Prairie Middle School.

More than ever, education lies at the intersection of equity, housing, funding, and other diverse issues facing Kansas City’s students, families and teachers. As KCUR’s education reporter, I’ll break down the policies driving these issues in schools and report what’s happening in our region's classrooms. You can reach me at jodifortino@kcur.org.
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