Kansas teachers to take lessons from Statehouse back to classrooms

? Nathan McAlister has been teaching eighth-grade social studies at Royal Valley Middle School north of Topeka for some time. He teaches about the Constitution, about the three branches of government and about how a bill becomes a law.

But after spending one grueling and, at times, dramatic weekend at the Kansas Statehouse the last few days, McAlister said he’ll have something new and personal to share with his students this week.

“Democracy in action works, and standing up for what you believe is important,” he said.

Teachers who converged on the Kansas Statehouse this week found various ways to pass the time as they waited for the House and Senate to start debating a school finance bill. They urged lawmakers not to include language that would also repeal the rights of teacher tenure in Kansas.

McAlister was just one of hundreds of school teachers who converged on the Statehouse this week, hoping to persuade lawmakers not to include a repeal of teacher tenure rights as part of a school finance bill that was meant to address funding inequities between rich and poor districts.

“We talk about these kinds of things, and this is part of it,” McAlister said. “Sometimes things go very slow in the Legislature, and how government works is not always what you want. It’s not always clean, and it’s not always simple.”

The teachers were in Topeka already for an annual meeting of the Kansas National Education Association, the state’s largest teachers union. But they began rallying at the Statehouse Saturday, soon after news broke that the school funding bill was being linked with other issues, including repeal of tenure rights.

For the better part of two days they sat in the galleries above the House and Senate chambers, gathered in the hallways meeting with legislators as they passed by and sat in on conference committee meetings as various deals were being negotiated.

And they took to social media, staying in contact with their colleagues throughout the state, urging them to email or call their senators and representatives.

But what the teachers saw and experienced over those two days seldom looked exactly like the textbooks. That includes meetings going late into the night, and into the wee hours of the next morning; conference committees meeting on short notice at 2 a.m., or even later; and citizens camping out on the cold marble floors during long breaks between sessions.

Jonathan Goering, who teaches in Kansas City, Kan., said regardless of the outcome, his experience will make him a better teacher.

“What’s nice about the textbook now is, we’re going to be able to talk about specific things like, ‘Oh, this is what a committee is,’ and you can take them through the process of what we’ve been through the last couple of days.

Karen Stockwell-Withers, who teaches ninth-graders at Atchison High School, said the experience will help her translate the textbooks into real life for her students.

“The textbooks make it sound boring, and this is exciting,” she said. “I think my kids will benefit from my being down here and seeing it happen.”

In the end, the teachers lost their battle. The House and Senate narrowly approved the bill Sunday, sending it to Gov. Sam Brownback for his signature.

But Stockwell-Withers said she’s now committed to staying more involved in political issues.

“I think this has inspired me to get even more involved myself,” she said. “It’s exhilarating watching this happen.”