Education Unions Fight Back in Kansas

by Jeremy Wade

Photo: KNEA

Photo: KNEA

At both the K-12 and post-secondary levels, public education in Kansas has come under attack in the past year. This should come as no surprise; Kansas is the home of Koch Industries, whose owners fund neoliberal projects across the country, and the state has long been stumbling down an increasingly conservative path. The reaction to these attacks, however, have been both surprising and inspiring, and the fact that they have occurred in Kansas should give hope that a democratic movement to build a better future for all is possible.

At the K-12 level, conservatives in the state legislature attached several policy amendments to a school funding bill  that only made it through the legislative process by the use of strong-arm tactics, such as delaying votes until 3 AM, and secretive, possibly illegal meetings. Among these policies was a tax credit given to corporations providing scholarships for private schools to at-risk children, and the end of a 57 year-old, state-wide due process policy for terminating a K-12 educator, by restricting the legal definition of “teacher” to an educator at a technical or community college. As a result of this legislation, a K-12 educator can be fired for no reason whatsoever, unless the contract negotiated at the local school board level includes a due process clause. This state-wide due process has saved quality educators from being terminated for refusing to “hand out” satisfactory grades to athletes , and one need not use too much imagination to see how terminating the employment of experienced educators and replacing them with new graduates fits into the neoliberal policy of reducing government spending.

In higher education, the academic freedom and free speech rights of workers in academia were severely restricted by a social media policy enacted by the Kansas Board of Regents. Under this policy, an employee of the state university system can be terminated for using social media to post anything “contrary to the best interests of the employer” or that “impairs discipline by superiors or harmony among co-workers.” Despite strong protests from faculty and negative national attention, the Board unanimously passed the policy after augmenting it with a ridiculous preface stating their support of free speech and academic freedom.

Fortunately, educators in Kansas have a strong union presence, and have been able to fight back against these policies. Several hundred members of KNEA attended the debate and vote on the education bill in the capitol of Topeka, filling the balcony with red shirts and refusing to leave, even as the vote was repeatedly delayed until the early morning hours. A rally in Topeka on May 17, the 60th anniversary of Brown v. Board of Education, drew several hundred participants protesting the abysmal legislation. In addition to public pressure, KNEA will fight the legislation in the courts and plans to file a lawsuit over the removal of the due process policy, alleging that the manner in which the legislation was passed violated Kansas law.

Some of the university educators in Kansas have also been able to fight the social media policy through their unions. Two of the public universities in Kansas, Pittsburg State University and Fort Hays State University, have unionized faculty and are protected by their contracts from the social media policy. Such a change to the conditions of employment would have to be negotiated in the contract, and given the unpopularity of the policy among academic workers in Kansas, such a conciliation is unlikely to be readily forthcoming.

With the unions in Kansas fighting back, their members energized, and interest in unionization growing, one might expect the Kansas legislature to ease their aggressive pursuit of a neoliberal agenda. On the contrary, they have become as brazen as ever. Recently, the leaders of the Kansas Policy Institute, a Koch “think” tank, and the Kansas Chamber of Commerce, also a beneficiary of Koch funds, were appointed to a Kansas schools “efficiency” commission by the speaker of the Kansas House. As these attacks mount, there is hope that a galvanized left will join in collective action and change the rightward trends we have seen for so long in Kansas.

Jeremy Wade is an Associate Professor of Mathematics at Pittsburg State University in Pittsburg, Kansas. The opinions expressed are those of the author and do not represent his employer.

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