Washington Post article sinks to new low in describing plight and flight of Kansas teachers

David DorseyEducation

It is appalling what passes for journalism these days. A recent example of publishing a story utilizing the just-cite-what-others-are-saying-without-checking-the-facts-or-credibility approach to journalism comes courtesy of the Washington Post. An article by Valerie Strauss entitled “Why teachers can’t hotfoot it out of Kansas fast enough” was published August 2. It is a scathing indictment of the state of education in general and specifically how teachers are treated and are responding by leaving the state of Kansas in droves. The following is a detailed analysis of the article, taking each point individually.

Low pay. Ms. Strauss reports incorrectly that the average teacher salary in Kansas is lower than that of only seven other states according to the latest data from the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES). First of all, she says 2012-13 is the latest year. That is not true, this table is from NCES teacher salary data for 2013-14. Actually, the average teacher salary in Kansas is higher than that of ten states and Kansas is one of 19 states in which teachers average less than $50 thousand per year. Does the author seriously believe Kansas teachers are flocking to Missouri for that extra $108 the average Missouri teacher gets ($48,329 versus $48,221)?

Job protection. The article states “job protections were cut by state lawmakers.” The fact is, the law she was referring to was changed in 2014 to no longer force districts to follow existing due process requirements when terminating a teacher. What Ms. Strauss failed to mention is that local districts are still allowed to put due process in their local negotiated agreements. Many districts have done just that, and furthermore, no evidence has been put forth that teachers who were previously considered “tenured” have been fired pursuant to the change in the law.

Underfunding led to schools closing early. This one’s a whopper. Ms. Strauss states “severe underfunding [is] so much of a problem that some school districts closed early this past year because they didn’t have the cash to keep operating.” This was discredited in this blog KPI posted in April by revealing that schools were closing early this year because districts had so many snow days left over, since last winter was unusually mild in Kansas.

Hiring unlicensed teachers. This one requires pretzel logic to follow. After three months of public debate the State Board of Education voted 6-4 to allow the six innovative school districts to hire unlicensed teachers. What Ms. Strauss failed to mention is that any hiring of an unlicensed teacher in these districts is subject to State Board approval. And contrary to what Ms. Strauss writes, the Kansas innovative school law still requires those districts to abide by the provisions of the school district finance and quality performance act, making the law functionally feckless and those six districts anything but innovative.

And perhaps Ms. Strauss needs a refresher course in cause and effect. Why would the ability of a few schools to hire a few unlicensed teachers cause others to flee the state?

Teachers leaving. The article states “at least 3,270 teachers left their jobs either by going to other states to teach, retiring or leaving the profession altogether.” Ms. Strauss took that information from this Lawrence Journal-World article that cites teacher exit data presented by KSDE to the State Board at the July meeting. Specifically, the article says: “At least 3,720 Kansas teachers have left the state, retired or taken jobs outside of education after this past school year, a huge jump from the 2,150 who did so just a couple of years ago.” The report compares the 2014-15 data to the 2011-12 data, but it conveniently leave out one little detail: as the table below shows (taken directly from the KSDE data), most of the increase occurred in the 2012-13 year, before the so-called cuts to education, the stripping of job protection, the hiring of licensed teachers…

teachers.exiting

Even if those numbers seem significant, a closer examination is in order. To put it perspective, Kansas has over 44,000 licensed teachers. Is it really startling that 740 (about 1.6%) would have left the profession last year? It is commonplace for people in all walks of life to change jobs/professions. Why should teaching be any different? Furthermore, I was one of those 717 in 2013-14 who left the profession and it certainly wasn’t for any of the reasons spewed in the Washington Post article. The reason termed “Out of state” doesn’t necessarily mean someone moved so they could teach in another state, as claimed by Ms. Strauss. It’s just that: they moved out of state. Is it so hard to conceive that a little over 1% of all licensed teachers moved to another state?

And here are some stats presented by KSDE that were conveniently omitted: in the 2014-15 school year, 461 experienced teachers moved to Kansas to teach, 225 teachers came to Kansas from out-of-state colleges to begin their teaching careers, and 156 teachers returned to the profession from other areas of employment.

Teacher retirement is more difficult to analyze because there are many factors that can influence the number of teachers who choose to retire. But in this case, of the 85.4 percent increase in retirements from 2011-12 to 2014-15, 65.4 percent happened in 2012-13.

The article also mentions a recruitment billboard from the Independence, Missouri school district on the Kansas Turnpike as evidence that teachers are leaving the state.

That’s not a type-o. The author actually quotes a KCUR story about Kansas teachers leaving in which Sam Zeff of KCUR uses the billboard as evidence that teachers are leaving. There is also a series of billboards on the turnpike promoting KU. I guess that gives new meaning to Go ‘Cats, since no one will be going to K-State anymore.

“Cuts” to education continue. KPI has documented over and over again that state support to education is increasing, not decreasing as the education community would like everyone to believe. Per-pupil state aid increased in 2014-15 for the fourth consecutive year, with a record estimated amount of $13,343. And if Ms. Strauss would have done her homework, she might not have written in her article that Governor Brownback “recently proposed another reduction in per-pupil general school aid for next year.” You see, there is a new finance law that provides state funding to school districts in the form of a block grant. No longer does per-pupil funding in Kansas exist.

UnknownThe Curmudgucation blog. It’s hard to comprehend that there could be a passage in Ms. Strauss’s article that is worse than the ones already mentioned. But there is. She actually quotes a guy named Peter Greene, a teacher in Ohio or maybe Pennsylvania (it’s hard to tell from his homepage) who is the purveyor of a webpage called Curmudgucation. He describes himself as “a grumpy old teacher trying to keep up the good classroom fight in the new age of reformy stuff.” Cute. Down-homey. Folksy. Not afraid to speak his mind. But hardly authoritative. Imagine Walter Matthau in Grumpy Old Men had he been a teacher. Here’s Greene’s summary of what it’s like to teach in Kansas:

Kansas favors the two-pronged technique. With one prong, you strip teachers of job protections and bargaining rights, so that you can fire them at any time for any reason and pay them as little as you like. With the other prong, you strip funding from schools, so that teachers have to accomplish more and more on a budget of $1.95 (and if they can’t get it done, see prong number one).

Thanks for the insight, Peter. I taught in Kansas for 17 years and had no idea how bad I had it.

As I write this, Kanas teachers are heading back to the classroom, preparing for students to return in the middle of the month. If what Ms. Strauss claims in the article is true, I imagine conversations like the following one must be taking place among teachers in staff rooms all across the state.

John: Did you hear?
Jane: What?
John: Concordia might be hiring an unlicensed shop teacher if they can get six members of the State Board to approve it at next month’s meeting. Or maybe the one after that, I’m not sure.
Jane: You cannot be serious! That’s it, I’m leaving this (bleep) state.
John: Me, too. I saw this billboard on the turnpike about teaching in Missouri. The kids look real nice. Missouri sounds awesome.
Jane: For sure. Missouri. Kansas. What’s the difference?
John: And somebody sent me a link on Facebook to this blog from this old teacher guy in Pennsylvania or Ohio, or someplace back east, who’s really got his thumb on – maybe it’s New Hampshire – on the pulse of what it’s really like to teach in Kansas. I’m glad I read it. I had no idea how awful we’re being treated.
Jane: Thank goodness for the internet.
John: I know, right? Besides, I hear you can make $108 more per year in the Show Me State – more like Show Me the Money State!
JaneCa-ching!
John: And it shouldn’t be that tough for my wife to get another job and I’m sure the kids will adjust with no problem. And how hard can it be to sell a house?
Jane: Where did you say that billboard was again?

Who knows? With journalism standards as they are, John and Jane may soon be featured in the Washington Post.

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