Archive for Saturday, April 26, 2014

School advocates say ‘Game On’ for 2014 elections

April 26, 2014


Heather Ousley had blisters on her feet by the time she arrived at the Kansas Statehouse on March 31.

So did a lot of other people who walked with her on various parts of her 60-mile trek that started a few days earlier in Johnson County, wound its way through Lawrence, and finished in Topeka just as the Kansas Legislature was beginning its final, hectic week of the 2014 regular session.

The purpose, she said, was to raise public awareness about the school finance debates taking place in the Legislature.

Activists from the group Game On for Kansas Schools showed off their blisters March 31 after walking 60 miles over four days, from Johnson County to the Kansas Statehouse, to rally support for public education funding. Although they didn't achieve what they wanted from the Legislature, members say they're gearing up for the 2014 elections.

Activists from the group Game On for Kansas Schools showed off their blisters March 31 after walking 60 miles over four days, from Johnson County to the Kansas Statehouse, to rally support for public education funding. Although they didn't achieve what they wanted from the Legislature, members say they're gearing up for the 2014 elections.

And while the session did not end the way she had hoped — she opposes the school finance bill, which eliminates teacher tenure, lowers licensing standards in some subjects and provides corporate tax breaks to fund private school vouchers — Ousley said the people in her group, and many more like it around the state, are not discouraged.

“This has just energized us and made us realize how really important this is that we have to continue to advocate,” Ousley said.

Ousley, a mother of three from Shawnee, is one of the organizers behind a relatively new grassroots organization, “Game On for Kansas Schools.”

Originally, she said, the name was meant to evoke the excitement of a sporting event. But it has also come to reflect a more daring, even confrontational mentality as the groups head into the 2014 election cycle hoping to put education issues at the top of the agenda.

“With the policy changes that have been put in place, we now have to be concerned with whether we're going to get to keep the good teachers we have,” Ousley said. “I certainly don't want my children's teachers to be afraid that they're not going to be able to keep their job, or that people who aren't certified will get to replace them.”

Game On actually began in 2009 with just three parents who were concerned about what they saw happening at Belinder Elementary School in the Shawnee Mission school district where they each had children attending. That was the year the state began making deep cuts in school funding in the wake of the financial industry collapse and the start of the Great Recession.

Judith Deedy, one of the original organizers, said they were concerned about growing class sizes and the disappearance of school trips and other programs. And as they talked with school board members and district officials, they learned that most of the funding decisions about public schools are made by the Legislature, not by local officials.

“Our demographic has done a lousy job of being informed voters,” Deedy conceded. “I say that without casting blame on anyone. I used to think I was an informed citizen until I started realizing how little I understood.”

With that new focus, members of Game On started reaching out, through social media and other outlets, to connect with like-minded groups in other communities, including Andover, Goddard and Derby in the Wichita area, as well as the local group Educate Lawrence.

Jerry Jost, an organizer with Educate Lawrence, said it all culminated in that final week of the session.

During that week, the chairman of the powerful House Appropriations Committee, Rep. Marc Rhoades, R-Newton, resigned his chairmanship in protest over the fact that GOP leaders were pushing for a clean funding bill, stripped of all the additional policy provisions that conservatives in the House had wanted.

At various times, those included defunding implementation of the Common Core standards, property tax credits for parents who send their children to private schools, and a vast expansion of charter schools in Kansas.

Later in the week, hundreds of teachers who'd come to Topeka for a previously scheduled teachers union convention converged on the statehouse, clad in red tee shirts. They stayed day and night as lawmakers met virtually non-stop from Friday, April 4, through Sunday, April 6.

Between the teachers, Game On and various other organizations, they formed a network of Twitter and Facebook followers numbering in the thousands that reportedly extended into communities throughout Kansas, sometimes competing with the traditional Statehouse news media in being the first to report the news.

“I think it was a really signature moment,” Jost said. “I was corresponding and communicating with legislators. And also with Educate Lawrence we had our own action-alert network. I was involved with social media and communications on all the decision points the state was considering.”

Deedy said they were not surprised by the outcome because they knew the die had been cast two years earlier, in the 2012 elections. That's when conservatives backed by Brownback, the Kansas Chamber and other organizations swept out many moderate Republicans, taking control of the Kansas Senate and solidifying their hold on the Kansas House.

But now the education groups are looking ahead to the 2014 elections, hoping that they can have more of an impact this time.

“We have a lot of work to do making sure people are informed,” Deedy said. “We still haven't decided whether we'll do endorsements, or issue grades for each legislator, or something else. But we will be involved in the process.”


Richard Heckler 3 years, 11 months ago

What's the matter With Kansas Schools

Kansas’ current constitutional crisis has its genesis in a series of cuts to school funding that began in 2009. The cuts were accelerated by a $1.1 billion tax break, which benefited mostly upper-income Kansans, proposed by Governor Brownback and enacted in 2012.

Overall, the Legislature slashed public education funding to 16.5 percent below the 2008 level, triggering significant program reductions in schools across the state. Class sizes have increased, teachers and staff members have been laid off, and essential services for at-risk students were eliminated, even as the state implemented higher academic standards for college and career readiness.

Parents filed a lawsuit in the Kansas courts to challenge the cuts. In Gannon v. State of Kansas, a three-judge trial court ruled in January 2013 for the parents, finding that the cuts reduced per-pupil expenditures far below a level “suitable” to educate all children under Kansas’ standards.

The judges also found that the Legislature was not meeting even the basic funding amounts set in its own education cost studies. The judges called the school funding cut “destructive of our children’s future.”

Richard Heckler 3 years, 11 months ago

Our nation spends about $500 billion in local, state and federal funds on public schools from kindergarten through high school. Most Americans view this as a wise investment in our nation's future. Throughout the 20th century the U.S. was the clear leader in public education. We created the most vibrant economy the world has ever known. The record speaks for itself -- public education is a great investment.

But there are people who look at our investment in public education, and they see a treasure chest. Their first thought is, how can they tap into those funds for their own private gain? If just one percent of education spending were diverted to private profit, it would mean $5 billion a year in someone's pockets. And that's just counting K-12; higher education is already a huge for-profit sector.

A simple fact of business: You have to spend money to make money. And those who want to privatize education are willing to spend lots of money and effort to push their agenda. One of the main ways they are doing this is through ALEC.

ALEC has pushed education vouchers, which use public funds to pay for private schools, for years. They haven't been deterred by the fact that voters have rejected vouchers time and time again. In states where courts held that vouchers weren't legal, they have looked for loopholes in the law.

Currently there are at least five different bills drafted by ALEC that use various approaches to divert public funds to private schools.

They all have one thing in common: They undermine our capacity to create great public schools in every neighborhood, by diverting scarce resources that public schools desperately need.

Today, 17 ALEC governors offer 33 programs that allow parents to use taxpayer money to send their children to private schools. This includes traditional vouchers as well as tax-credit scholarship programs that give individuals or corporations tax reductions if they donate to scholarship funds. My home state of Arizona adopted this tactic.

Vouchers are only one side of ALEC's education agenda. If they can't get public funds for private schools, they try to privatize the public schools.

Richard Heckler 3 years, 11 months ago

Ohio Governor John Kasich tried to follow the Walker/ALEC template, but voters overwhelmingly rejected that agenda in a public referendum.

Since then, ALEC has come under closer scrutiny, and progressive organizations have begun to shine a brighter light on its activities.

Common Cause is screening The United States of ALEC in state capitols around the country. If you aren't able to attend a screening, throw a bag of popcorn in the microwave and watch it here.

I guarantee it will be a half-hour well spent.

Jeffrey Sykes 3 years, 11 months ago

If you are interested in finding out more about Game on, you can like it on facebook:

or follow on twitter: ( @GameOnKansas)

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