The last few weeks in Kansas have been filled with debate over education proposals that make significant changes in the policies toward education. ALEC, who drafted the education legislation, came under fire – and then had Republicans defend their proposals. With all the back and forth, however, what I couldn’t find in any media source was a real evaluation of the potential longterm impacts of legislation such as the Kansas proposal.
Over this last week, I’ve spent time speaking to educators around Kansas: Marcus Baltzell, Director of Communications at Kansas National Education Association, Americans For Prosperity (Conservative backers), Stanford Center for Opportunity Policy in Education, Julian Vasquez Heilig, Ph.D University of Texas at Austin Department of Educational Administration, and over 50 administrators, superintendents and staffers at public and private schools around the state of Kansas.
I didn’t want a simple answer – I wanted to find the real answer about the impact of legislation as it was proposed in the state of Kansas for children of all grade levels.
What I discovered bothered me far more than I expected. I had a certain outlook on the Kansas proposal, but after listening to some of the brightest minds in the educational field explain to me the issues -- from economics to long term policy -- I realized I had drastically under-estimated the kind of damage that policies like those in Kansas will have on citizens.
ALEC’s Move on Due Process: hindering the process
Sitting in the capital building as the legislation was passed, the most significant discussion held in the senate and house chamber revolved around the loss of Due Process for educators in the state of Kansas. In speaking to Marcus Baltzell of KNEA that night the issue was put in stark terms:
Marcus Baltzell: “Educators can’t always make everyone happy. It’s not part of the job. Teachers have to back policies that administration won’t always want. Do you want a teacher to feel as though their job is on the line for backing a child’s IEP?”With Marcus words in mind, I sought out leaders in the field to find out what the real impact of removing teacher due process would mean toward the education of students. My first call went to the Stanford Center for Opportunity Policy in Education. What was made clear to me quickly is that the move by Kansas wasn’t only about Kansas, it was about changing the rules of nationwide education policy. Barbara McKenna, Communications Director at SCOPE directed me to look at ongoing Vergera case in California.
Vergara, being argued by conservative super attorney Theodore Olsen and funded by Silicon Valley millionaire David Welch, argues that the existence of teacher tenure (California has tenure, remember Kansas is due process) acts as a violation of equal access to education.
The case itself is viewed as a longshot – primarily because providing proof of tenure causing a loss of standing in a school in comparison to an at-will employment standard is difficult to prove in a court of law. What SCOPE was kind to point out, though, was that proving this in court wasn’t the key point – no, the court case was to lay the ground for 2016 initiatives in the state of California to follow other states that would move to at-will teaching.
But why would there be such a move in a state like California? And would states like Kansas simply become an opening act for implementation of similar policy in larger states? To answer those questions, I had to ask what made due process important for educators and students, and why conservatives wanted to end due process/tenure so badly.
I contacted StudentsFirst, a conservative group that sponsored legislation in Kansas and who backed Kansas HB-2506, to get their position on tenure. I was referred to their Policy Agenda Strategy 1.6:
Tenure in K–12 education today means that teachers (and, in many cases, principals) are granted a "job for life" after a relatively short time in the classroom — usually without any serious attempt to evaluate the teacher's effectiveness. In most states, tenure is essentially automatic after two or three years, barring criminal or extreme misconduct. Once granted, the rules and regulations accompanying tenure or permanent contracts make removing even the most unmotivated and ineffective teachers nearly impossible. These policies do nothing to advance the interests of students, but instead serve only to protect adult jobs.With the conservative position on teacher tenure outlined, I needed to find out what exactly was wrong with this argument. After all, on first blush an argument like this one may seem attractive to the average, uninformed voter.
I contacted Julian Vasquez Heilig, Ph.D, University of Texas at Austin about tenure and teacher certification practices.
Me: I’m interested in what you think of the move to end due process rights and tenure in many states?Teacher due process protects the voice of a teacher to represent a student in dealing with a parent or administration.
Dr. Heilig: When groups like ALEC and StudentsFirst use tenure they know that the idea of bashing tenure matches with their memberships ideology. They talk about ineffectual teachers and the reason to terminate them, but this really boils down to is that teaching is an expense, and if you can lower teacher cost that’s the real goal.
While StudentFirst noted that the removal of due process was critical for improving the education standards of a state, I wanted to know for sure if this is how administrators felt. I took two days and contacted multiple school districts throughout Kansas, and couldn’t find a single district that would go on the record as in favor of ending due process.
Senator Julia Lynn told her constituents that many administrators had voiced their support for ending due process. Citing the privacy of those conversations, she refused to tell audiences which districts supported such a move, and since I was unable to get a district to go on the record either way, it is possible that she does have some administrators who favored such change. What I found telling, though, was that if this was a serious issue for these boards -- in legislation that is now almost certain to be law -- I couldn’t get a single administrator to voice their preference for the new reality under Kansas legislation.
Ending Teacher Certification.. how de-regulating education opens up the market for profit and promotes part-time teachers.
While Due Process rights gain most of the discussion, especially in a union environment, I wanted to take the time to talk to Julian about the impact of removing teacher certification.
Me: Could you explain for me the impact of the loss of teacher education.For the first time, I looked at the framing of the loss of certification as the most potentially damaging of all of the issues facing teachers in a state like Kansas. By removing the certification standards, individuals would be free to back into teaching positions while waiting for the ‘job of their dreams’ to open up. All of the life skills in the world wouldn’t help someone who struggled to deal with children.
Dr. Heilig: This is going to sound ‘no duh’, but we have just completed a multi-year study here that shows that teachers who have been through a certification process have significantly higher results than those who have been through lesser or no programs
Imagine this for me. You go to the airport and they have three flights to your location. One flight has a certified pilot with years of training. The other has a pilot with 30 hours of training (TFA), and the final pilot has no training but has a BA/BS and 'real world experience'. Which plane would you fly? The answer is pretty obvious, right? You’d take the flight with a pilot who had all the training. So, why are we so interested in putting our kids on that (last) flight?
Me: That makes senses to me, but what is the real appeal of having non-certified teachers? In a recent newsletter, Kansas House Representatives have touted that these individuals will have ‘life experience’, and that is an advantage for them.
Dr. Heilig: Life experience is not the same as a teaching experience. You can’t fire children, and the methods to deal with children aren’t the same as at a workplace. You’re probably familiar with pedagogy – that there is both a science and an art to educating young minds. You end up with people who have no teacher training who drop in and out of teaching. You create a permanent setting for part-time teachers.
I spoke to Marcus Baltzell about this the day before:
Me: If you remove the teacher certification, does that lower the social status for becoming a teacher? Does it really make it ‘anyone can do this job’?I took time to think back to the example of the plane - would I hop onto a plane with someone who had ‘life experience’?
Marcus Baltzell: I think that’s a real problem. People think they can do this job, and it doesn’t work that way. When you remove all standards for becoming a teacher, of course teachers lose some stature, because you open it up for people who will take the job without any real training of how to do it well.
Kansas Republicans Suggest School Spending Is Up – Why the complaints?
While the state debates the role of funding, Kansas Republicans noted that funding is up considerably since 2000, and a lot of that goes into the classroom.
What really has changed since 2000? I asked that follow up question of school administrators who were happy to at least answer this question. More Kansas schools than ever offer extended education programs, in subject matter ranging from Computer Aided Design to Robotics. These kind of programs, administrators tell us, are a big part in providing high school students the kind of education they will need to compete in the next generation workplace.
Republicans all agree on this, with Senator Julia Lynn noting that we should be expanding high tech technology programs in high schools, and promoting trade skills like Welding and industrial arts. While representatives promote these programs as a way to modernize our schools, his modernization has a cost.
The ongoing cost of promoting technology and internet into schools have been a significant push of multiple administrations. In 1998, the Clinton administration pushed for additional funding and access to schools in order to provide rural communities access to funds and resources that would be burdensome otherwise. This was accomplished by putting land line usage fees on phone bills for AT&T and land line carriers.
A university of Berkley California case study noted the additional revenues ($2.25B) and the use of nationwide funds and grants that would come through similar programs to help schools and facilities upgrade.
While the modernization of schools is an important element addressed by both Republicans and Democrats, the cost of these technological programs are significantly higher than programs that are based on standard texts. But while both sides agree to it, the outside support for these kind of programs has been cut in states like Kansas.
In 2011, Kansas opted out of the land line and rural service area requirements, which in turn significantly lowered all telecom company requirements for in-state grant funding for educational use of technology. While the public sector demanded resources and promoted private education, private companies were given a pass on providing support for this new and higher cost educational training.
Failure is Not a Problem
Couldn’t this all backfire on groups like ALEC? If education slips in a state like Kansas or North Carolina or elsewhere, wouldn’t ALEC be the group holding the bag? And that is the beauty of legislation like that proposed in Kansas.
Kansas proposed multiple angles with their education policy. While the legislation removes teacher due process and ends teacher certification, it adds funding.
Dr. Heilig: It’s really win-win for them here. If the state scores go down, they can throw up their hands and say they provided more money, despite the fact that many of their proposals are likely to harm the system. If the scores go up, they take credit.In the end, no matter what the educational results are for Kansas, it sets itself up as the template for other states and provides the template for proposing similar programs nationwide.
Looking at Kansas, your NAEP scores are top-20. So there are grounds for improvement, but the state isn’t in trouble. People are proposing policy solutions for non-problems. No matter how the results turn up, they get to look as though they have the solution and the opposition is the problem.
But if failure isn’t an option, and StudentFirst and ALEC are set on bringing this kind of program nationwide, what are the longterm implications for students?
Me: The last thing I want to touch on are the tax credits for companies who send children to private schools. In Kansas, it’s a 70% tax credit of funding.As I thought about this, I began to wonder about many of the issues I had looked into before. What about Catholic and other private schools? What were their standards on hiring teachers? Or teacher due process?
Dr. Heilig: When you setup vouchers or non-profit holding companies that then pay for private education, you are really extending economic disparity amongst kids. A 70% tax credit doesn’t send a poor student to a private school. They can’t make up the 30% and a tax credit doesn’t help the poor. So, you end up pulling the more affluent students out of public schools.
In contacting several Catholic High schools around Kansas, I made a few calls to the Kansas City Archdiocese and the Wichita Archdiocese about their practices in hiring teachers. Do they require certification? Yes. Will that change with the change in Kansas policy? No. Outside of normal certifications, they of course have advance catholic training requirements, Masters Degree requirements for many high school class coursework, and requirements for continual study for teachers.
While Kansas representatives are praising ‘real world’ experience, the private schools they promote aren’t offering positions to uncertified bachelor degree candidates. If the promotion of real world skills were as highly valued as our representatives led us to believe, wouldn’t their ideal schools endorse a similar policy?
Instead, legislation like that which was put forward in Kansas creates a clear and bright line for students early in their life – that they are on an educational track which puts them at a significant disadvantage from their peers based on their family connection to corporate wealth or their ability to wait for tax rebates.
Dr. Heilig: ALEC gives the state of Louisiana an A on its education program. They give Massachusetts a D. If you took Massachusetts out of the US and judged their NAEP scores against the rest of the world, they would be in the top 5-7. Louisiana wouldn't appear in the top 50. That's putting ideology over results.It isn’t about results. It’s not about results for the kids, it isn’t about results for the policy – which succeeds even if it fails.
I wanted to take a week to look at the issue of Kansas legislation and ask what happens next. Kansas as well as several other states -- namely Wisconsin and North Carolina -- are simply test markets to push this type of policy forward into other markets.
Are there actual benefits to a teaching job market that is fluid with part-time teachers that dream of different employment? Who gains from an under-informed work force where only those who have resources find quality education? Will teachers feel free to advocate for special needs students to an administration that might be wary of costs?
In the end, one side of this debate views it as win-win. Whether or not education improve in Kansas, they can declare a victory.
Students, on the other hand face a long and difficult road ahead, in which higher teacher turnover and a flight of privileged students diminishes the standard by which education is judged.