Photo Credit: Science News for Students 

OVERLAND PARK — In years past, Kansas education has been a selling point for families moving to Johnson County.

It has been a recruitment tool to encourage community growth and to pull in young professionals. Today, however, local leaders fear the collapse of their school system.

“Essentially, we’re at the point where we’re looking at a transformation of public education and public schools,” said Sen. Cindy Holscher, an Overland Park Democrat. “This is the result of decades-long involvement by outside agencies, sometimes out-of-state, sometimes in-state, working to basically undermine our educational institutions.”

Community members gathered earlier this month to discuss the status of Johnson County schools during a panel discussion hosted by Freedom to Learn, a local public education advocacy group. Mediated by Holscher, the July 9 panel consisted of four speakers: Wayne Burke, former Spring Hill superintendent; Patty Carter, director of special education at Greenbush, a southeast Kansas initiative with the focus of bringing equal educational opportunities to all; Ken Thomas, a former Blue Valley teacher; and Jeff Little, a past president of Kansas Council of Health-System Pharmacy.

“As far as funding for our schools, you have teacher salaries, you have special ed, you have transportation, you have different supplies, these different areas that have to be funded,” Carter said. “Essentially, the Legislature is supposed to approve the money to go into those buckets. Now, here’s the caveat, special education has to be filled to the top. If it doesn’t get filled to the top, if the Legislature doesn’t allow that funding, the money has to come from those other areas to fill that bucket.”

Across the country, public schools are seeing a decrease in qualified teachers, according to the U.S. Department of Education. The national teacher shortage has caused states such as Kansas to allow emergency substitute teacher licenses.

Education isn’t the only profession seeing a shortage, especially in Kansas. With decreasing enrollment numbers in pharmaceutical studies, health care professionals are also experiencing this shortage.

“When I’m trying to recruit pharmacists, and they’re looking at where to move their family to and where to start a life, the quality of the schools is absolutely a factor,” Thomas said. “That is something that historically has played to our favor when recruiting people is the Kansas public schools.”

Thomas said a local health care leader recently told him about moving from California because of the special education programs in Kansas

“He was telling me that when he was looking at positions, one of the things he did is he went to the schools,” Thomas said. “He has a child that receives special education services, and he said that that’s one of the main reasons that he chose to come here.”

Dave Trabert, CEO of the Kansas Policy Institute, a nonprofit organization that lobbies for less public school funding, attended the meeting.

Following the main discussion, Trabert challenged the panel, asking about student achievement.

“This is a question I’ve asked state school board members and local school board members, and I’ve never gotten an answer,” Trabert said. “I hope anyone out there on the panel or the senator would have to have an answer. How many more years is it going to take to get all the kids in Kansas to at least grade level?”

Burke asked Trabert a series of questions about Kansas students: “Are they special education students? Do they have trauma? Are their parents divorced? Are they fighting with their girlfriend? Boyfriend?

“You’re throwing out this, ‘Give me this perfect thing.’ What I’m saying is I’m dealing with imperfect people that change from year to year. You can have a kid that’s just doing really, really well and all of a sudden their parents are divorced. And that kid that might have been in the 90th percentile, 95th percentile, all of a sudden goes down. I don’t know if I have the resources that help to get that kid back.”

Trabert persisted in his line of questioning, with panelists and audience members growing impatient. One audience member asked him, “Have you ever taught in a classroom before?”

“No, I haven’t,” Trabert said.

In a flurry of voices, he pushed forward: “You don’t have to teach in a — I do understand the data. I understand that many states are going forward while Kansas is going backwards.”

Holscher said she believes those who can make the best decisions about Kansas public education are the teachers, administrators and counselors who are actively involved in classrooms.

“The best ideas do not come from legislators who haven’t been in a school building for 20 or 30 years,” Holscher said. “The professionals out there working are the ones” who know how to address these issues.