July 14, 2016
Guest Blog: Why I Left Kansas, But Not Teaching
In the three weeks I have been in my new house in Bluffton, South Carolina, there is one room that is still filled with boxes. It is difficult to “unpack” when each box is filled with memories of a Kansas career that spans 20 years, 19 teaching social studies in Lawrence and the most recent year as a gifted facilitator in Shawnee Mission. The first box was United States history. My Advanced Placement and survey United States history students loved the 1897 reproduction of the Sears & Roebuck catalog, the discussion of consumerism and how what people purchased said about their lives. The later pictures of houses that could be purchased as kits led to discussions about our community and similar homes. We wrapped up with the question about the decline of “brick and mortar” stores in a day when we can buy virtually anything using our phones. This box was slid into the closet and will move to my new school next month.
The next box started with a European Union flag and was filled with memories of teaching Advanced Placement United States government, and comparative politics. US government has always been my favorite class to teach, comparative government was the most challenging. I thought about Brexit, one of my students from SMSD who lived in the United Kingdom when he was in elementary school, the discussions we had about the then upcoming vote, and the realization that I would not be able to talk with him about the vote when he returned to school in the fall. I felt sad as I closed this box and moved it to the part of the closet where it would stay for the indefinite future. How did I come to this decision? I loved my job, told a parent during an IEP meeting in the fall that my intention was to retire from SMSD and that I would “be there” when her younger son arrived the next year.
To understand the complexity of my decision, we need to start at the beginning and the first time budget issues severely disrupted my career. I came to teaching through a non-traditional path. I passed my comprehensive exams in history during the summer of 1991, a recession year, and did not get admitted to the doctoral program that I wanted. I ended up in Kansas City, Missouri. If you want to call it “luck,” I landed a job working at a school-based, drug and alcohol treatment program for inner-city teens. I loved this job and working with at-risk teenagers. It was important. Everyday what I did mattered in the life of a young person. The program did not have enough teachers for summer school and an administrator asked me if I wanted to teach. It was a private school, so a teaching license was not an issue and I said yes. That fall I had the option of returning to the treatment side of the school or continuing teaching. My decision was easy and I started taking classes to earn a license.
During my third year at this program, they lost a major grant and seven of us lost our jobs. I was devastated. I only needed my “methods” class and a student teaching experience to earn a license which would at least grant me the ability to look for other teaching jobs, but it was going to take two semesters, essentially a year, to complete the program, and then the likelihood of getting another social studies position was slim. I had heard from my partner, who was licensed and also lost his job, that there was a great deal of competition for social studies positions, and that many of the openings were locked into a coaching position, something neither one of us had the experience to do. I took the chance and completed the program but did not get a teaching job. I landed a position at a college running their academic support program. The next spring, a friend of mine was going to the University of Kansas’s teacher placement day and invited me to come along. I honestly felt like it was such a waste of time that I only agree if he registered me and picked schools for me to interview with. Seriously!
I got “lucky” again and started teaching at the Alternative High School in Lawrence. I loved working with at-risk students and would have happily stayed in that position for the remainder of my career, but the “unlucky” part of my story deals with budget considerations, which have been a part of my teaching experience from the beginning and definitely during the entire time, I taught in Kansas. I had completed a second master’s degree and when our program was closed after 9 years. I was moved to Lawrence Free State High School where I spent the next 10 years teaching AP US history, AP US government and comparative politics, and other social studies classes.
During my 19 years in Lawrence I served on a variety of committees, helped with curriculum, was a mentor, a building representative for the Lawrence Education Association, and was served for two years on the negotiations team. I was keenly aware of how costs were pushed onto parents as yearly fees increased, costs for elective classes went up, extra curricular and sports costs soared, and parents had to pay for busses to get their students to school. By the time I left Lawrence, I could tell you how much each dry erase marker cost, and our departmental budget was so small that I spent hundreds of dollars every year buying supplies and curricular materials for my classroom.
I decided to pursue a special education, gifted and talented, endorsement after a friend and colleague retired. My position as an Advanced Placement teacher meant I worked with many gifted students, I enjoyed it, and understood that many of them were at risk, which was where my heart has always been as an educator. I was afraid I might miss my curricular area since I believed I had the best job and took my responsibility to teach civic responsibility seriously. I took classes at Emporia State University, and almost $7,000 later, I had an endorsement as a gifted facilitator, and a job in Shawnee Mission traveling between SM North and SM East high schools. The learning curve in this new position was steep, not the least of which involved two sets of administrators, two buildings worth of teachers, approximately 120 students, and the requisite IEP paperwork. It was a challenge, but I was up to it and really loved the students. In education, there are obviously students you connect with more easily, and in just a year’s time, there are some students in SMSD that made my decision to leave very difficult. So why did I leave?
By January, I was settling into my new job. My initial concerns about missing my content area were unfounded because the students I worked with had such diverse interests; we had opportunities to discuss everything from literature to math, science to music, world affairs, to Broadway musicals (here is looking at you Hamilton). There were challenges to address, many of which involved students who were underachieving. There were also students who struggled with mental health issues. As I type this, my heart is heavy, which may not really make sense given my decision to leave. The state legislature began meeting, and the continued issue with declining revenues was paramount. In April, Kansas cut revenue projections by $348 million and had missed revenue projections 11 of the past 12 months (ksn.com). May was off by $74.5 million (Kansas.com) and June by $33 million (Kansas.com), but I am getting ahead of myself.
Education funding accounts for about half of the state budget, and with declining revenues, there was a great deal of speculation about what might happen. Early in February, a lawmaker from Hays introduced legislation to decouple gifted services from special education. This proposal has been made in previous years and is generally seen by parents and gifted facilitators as a budget-saving measure. Simply put, special education services are expensive and if gifted is not classified as special education, then those services would not be mandated, and could be eliminated. Parents mobilized quickly and the bill did not even get a hearing (Kansas.com). This attempt was not the first at decoupling gifted services and is not likely to be the last. After spending a substantial amount of money, I was nervous. My position was “safe” this year, but funding for the district was expected to go down, resulting in major cuts. Then the Kansas Supreme Court ruled that school funding was inadequate and that if not fixed, they would shut down schools in the state (kmbc.com). While I did not really believe the state legislature would let schools close, it did not ease my concerns, especially when shortly thereafter SMSD superintendent Jim Hinson reported a “worse case scenario” of $12 million in cuts (fox4kc.com). During my time in Lawrence Public Schools, on two occasions all first year teachers were “pink slipped” due to projected cuts in state funding. In a career where I had experienced significant upheaval due to budget issues, the realization that I was technically a “first year teacher” again loomed large. The ramifications of Governor Brownback’s “experiment” were playing out in the lives of real people.
I was the primary wage earner in the family and my job provided insurance for my husband. I was scared and started to discuss options with him. For years we had been talking about where we wanted to retire and had settled on the Low Country of South Carolina. I love kayaking, birds, nature and all things outdoors and we both love the ocean and frequently traveled to this area. We even contemplated downsizing in the Midwest, and buying a vacation property so we could divide our time between the two areas. With uncertainty in the air we put our family house on the market in February and received a full-price offer in less than a week. We spent spring break in South Carolina and found a house that we loved.
Finding our dream house, however, was not really the proverbial “final straw” that pushed me out of Kansas. That happened when Kansas made the national news again, this time for a bill that passed in the state Senate that would have made it an impeachable offense for the Court to “usurp” the other branches, by declaring an act of the state legislature or the governor unconstitutional (nytimes.com). Really Kansas? I spent 19 of my 20 years in education teaching government and was shocked. Perhaps I should not have been given that they tried to “bully” the Court by threatening to withhold funding too, but the whole process of checks-and-balances that are hallmarks of democracy were just thrown out the window in the name of partisanship. I felt Kansas had just “jumped off the deep end” and I was ready to leave. I started the process of getting a teaching license in South Carolina.
I did not get offered an interview until June, past the point where I could leave my position without having to pay my district $1,000. I chose not to give notice early because I honestly loved my job and my husband and I discussed the possibility of my staying in Kansas and traveling back and forth, and idea that he did not relish. Of course, at the time of the interview, the possibility of schools closing still loomed large and the administrators had even heard that it was a possibility. I told them that I expected a resolution of the situation this year, but after a career where budget problems were the norm, I was ready to finish my career in South Carolina and that my only regrets dealt with students that I would leave behind. My interview went well, but experience told me that it sometimes takes a week or more before schools can make hiring decisions. I was surprised when the principal called that afternoon and I was offered the position.
While salaries are comparable to what I earned in Kansas, the real difference comes from benefits. South Carolina teachers are part of the state plan, something that we could not do in Kansas. I spent over $500 per month to have the most basic insurance I could have for my husband and was fortunate to work in districts that covered a basic plan for the employee. I did not opt to “buy up” to a better policy because of the amount I was already paying for my husband to have coverage. Being part of the state pool in South Carolina means better coverage at a lower cost for the employee. I was able to sign up for the “buy up” option for medical, dental, and vision for both myself and my husband for half of what I had paid in Kansas for less coverage. Yes, half! When I served on the negotiations team, admittedly quite a few years ago, I was told that Kansas did not want teachers to be part of the state plan because we cost too much money since as a profession we were overwhelmingly women and the state cared more about budget considerations than good coverage options for school districts across the state.
For most of us, being a teacher is about more than our salary and benefits; we love making a difference in the lives of our students. Nationwide it is a difficult time for teachers. In the current, anti-tax mood, the costs of educating students who underperform on assessments makes some people want to change the system. The charter school and for-profit school movements are a byproduct of these sentiments, as are voucher movements. There are complex issues that contribute to student performance. I do not mind being held accountable for what I do in my classroom, but the test scores of my students may not always be the best indicator. Kansas students traditionally take a social studies assessment their junior year. The year I moved from teaching US history to juniors at the Alternative High School to teaching juniors enrolled in AP US history, I apparently became a much better teacher. My credentials had not changed, but the students taking my class had changed considerably. Add to that a movement to grant merit pay, and no teacher who has a choice will likely want to work with at risk students. What will we do at that point, sit those students in front of a computer and hope for the best?
The number of young people entering education is declining. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, the number of college degrees conferred is up 34% between 2004-04 and 2013-14. However, the number of people earning degrees in education has decreased from 106,300 per year to 98,900 per year in the same period (NCES.ed.org). The long-term trend can be easily seen in an interactive chart featured on NPR.org: College Majors, 1970-2011, Share Of All Bachelor’s Degrees Awarded By Field. Estimates are the 40% of those people who pursue education never teach. Couple this information with startling statistics on teacher turnover, 40-50% of teachers leave the profession in the first five years, and nearly 10% quit before their first year is over (theatlantic.com) and we are facing a serious shortage of educators that will only get worse as people like me finally retire. Who will teach the next generation of young people?
Kansas faces similar issues with teacher retention. In my final year in Lawrence, I drove past a billboard urging Kansas’s teachers to consider positions in the Independence Missouri school district. Nor surprisingly, the billboard itself made national news as an example of what was going on in Kansas. The local NPR affiliate KCUR did a story and sites statistics about problems Kansas was having keeping teachers in the profession. Between 2011 and 2015, there was a 72% increase in the number of teachers who simply left the profession. My own daughter is part of that statistic. She left teaching after two years. But my situation as an experienced teacher deciding to leave the state is not atypical. In the same time period, there was a 63% increase in the number of teachers who left Kansas to teach in other states. They report that in 2015 there were 500 unfilled teaching positions with one month before school starts (KCUR.org). This year the number is 582 (kansasteachingjobs.com). Perhaps some of those teachers are concerned about being sent to jail for doing their job. In a year when it seemed like things could not get worse for Kansas teachers, the Senate passed a bill that would criminalize teaching content that is “harmful.” Teaching literary classics to high school students or showing them famous works of art could result in six months in jail and fines up to $1,000. Nor surprisingly, we made the national news again (neatoday.org)(latimes.com).
The time has come for Kansans to move beyond partisan rhetoric. Governor Brownback claims that the Kansas economy is strong and that his policies are working. If that is the case, then why did our credit rating get downgraded? Why does the state have to raid the highway fund and delay payments to KPERS to make ends meet? Why does the legislature resort to raising sales taxes, which disproportionally hurt those least able to absorb the increase and those who are more affluent can avoid by simply shopping elsewhere? Why do politicians and comedians alike cite Kansas negatively? Does Brownback really believe he is creating a climate that will draw business to the state? Businesses need transportation infrastructure. Businesses are made of employees who want good schools for their children. Businesses are made of people who have family members who need adequate services for their children with disabilities, or mental health issues. Kansas has not created an environment that draws business to the state. It is not just about tax policy guys. I will miss my friends, family, colleagues and former students, but I will not miss Kansas.
Kimberly Grinnell, MA MAED