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Educators say attacking Kansas teachers is GOP strategy to push private schools

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During an education hearing, lawmakers scolded a teacher when she asked them to stop promoting harmful rhetoric

TOPEKA — Buhler teacher Sam Neill worked late into the night Sunday, Jan. 29, networking with fellow teachers to sculpt a testimony that would adequately describe the issues educators are facing statewide.

After making the two and half hour drive into Topeka to give lawmakers her opinion on educational issues in the state on Monday, she was told by a lawmaker that people like her were the reason no one wanted to become teachers.

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“It really took me off guard,” Neill said during an interview. “I was not expecting to have that kind of a response at the end of a very long day. I was asked to come up and share reasons why teachers are leaving the profession, and that’s what I did. And just because some of those reasons are not what wants to be heard, we can’t assume that that means they’re invalid.”

Neill has been teaching for 20 years. She was the 2018 Kansas Teacher of the Year and a 2021 Lowell Milken Center fellow, a prestigious national honor.

During the Monday House K-12 Education Budget Committee hearing, Neill asked lawmakers to support teachers by implementing better pay, giving teachers more of a voice in public education policy, and fully funding schools.

She also asked lawmakers to stop using harmful rhetoric, such as the “sexualized woke agenda,” and promoting false ideas.

“Here are some of the words that we hear every day as educators: Groomers, indoctrinators, indoctrination camps, agenda pushers, radicals, leftists, socialist, communist, government schools,” Neill said during the committee hearing. “None of them are positive. They all have negative connotations. There’s also a false narrative that we supply kitty litter boxes for students, one that representatives in this House have shared and never retracted. Recent reference to a sexualized woke agenda that is supposedly being taught in our classrooms was made.”

Rep. Joe Seiwert, R-Pretty Prairie, made the false claim during a March 5, 2022, legislative forum in Hutchinson that teachers were advised by mental health professionals to put litter boxes in school bathrooms.

“The mental health people are telling them to go ahead and put sandboxes in the restroom for these kids, encouraging them to express themselves,” Seiwert said.

Politicians have claimed public schools are providing litter boxes for children who identify as cats, despite a lack of evidence of this. Some politicians have used the claim as an argument against LGBTQ student accommodations, saying allowing people to express their identities could lead to this sort of scenario.

Nationwide, false claims about schools accommodating students who identify as “furries” have been routinely debunked, and the stories are viewed as an attack on the LGBTQ community.

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Republicans in the House and Senate have made fighting the “sexualized woke agenda” a legislative priority this session, with a common sentiment that Kansas students are struggling with mental health as a result of being taught an unnecessary and radical curriculum.

Republicans also promoted the idea of parental rights, trying to pass legislation that would give parents authority over what is being taught in schools. Several lawmakers, including Rep. Brenda Landwehr, a Wichita Republican who serves as the K-12 Education Budget Committee’s vice chairwoman, have criticized public schools, saying kids were graduating without the ability to properly read and write.

Landwehr said the negativity of teachers like Neill discourages others from joining the profession.

“I find it ironic that the very people that come up here and say that they’re the advocates for our education and our teachers are actually the ones that’s doing the fearmongering, and it’s making people not want to become teachers,” Landwehr said.

Landwehr said educators who testified before the committee were stirring up trouble for personal gain, including people like Neill, who testified against expansion of a private school tax credit program in House Bill 2048.

“All those people want is more money,” Landwehr said. “And to protect a system.”

Program critics say the bill would incentivize the privatization of Kansas education, ultimately taking funds away from Kansas public schools. Under the program, organizations and taxpayers currently can write off 70% of scholarships they provide to private schools, with a maximum allowable credit of $500,000 per year. HB2048 would expand student eligibility for the program and allow a 100% tax write-off.

A hearing for House Bill 2218, which would establish a full-blown private school voucher program, is scheduled for Monday in the House. The Senate Education Committee will have a Tuesday hearing on Senate Bill 83, which would expand student eligibility for the tax credit scholarship program and increase tax credit reimbursement for program contributions.

Marcus Baltzell, director of communications for the Kansas National Education Association, said he was concerned about lawmakers’ attitudes toward teachers.

“When a former teacher of the year, a Milken fellow, gets up to give testimony about what’s going on in terms of teacher recruitment and retention or what’s going on in a classroom, and that person is vilified openly, or ridiculed or denigrated, that tells you everything about where their attitude is on teachers,” Baltzell said.

Baltzell said he believes rhetoric vilifying teachers and programs like the tax credit program are meant to reduce parents’ confidence in public schools and push students into private education.

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“Their game is to weaken public schools, to make incentives around people leaving public schools. And then to point to the schools and say, ‘See, you’re failing,’” Baltzell said.

Neill said she was concerned about the public vs. private school narrative and distrust promoted by lawmakers, saying people looked to the Legislature for guidance.

Between poor pay, long hours and increasing hostility toward teachers, Neill said some days were a struggle for her. She also mentioned feeling unsafe, referencing the time Rep. Paul Waggoner, a Hutchinson Republican, took pictures of her house last year and refused to tell her why.

“On some days I feel like I’m a violinist going down on the Titanic,” Neill said to lawmakers during the hearing. “I’ll be honest. I’m playing that violin and trying to bring a sense of direction and a sense of calm and purpose to my students.”

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