Topeka Some members of the Kansas State Board of Education told U.S. Rep. Kevin Yoder on Tuesday that they believe President Donald Trump's administration has been sending negative messages about public education in general, and about teachers in particular, saying that kind of tone is contributing to a growing teacher shortage in Kansas.
"The narrative coming from Secretary DeVos and from our president has not been positive about public schools," board member Jim McNiece said. "I don’t know if they are doing that deliberately because, I guess, they don’t understand us, or they haven’t experienced us, or if it’s an agenda that’s going another way. I’d like to take a more positive position and think they just don’t know us very well, because neither had been involved in public education."
McNiece was referring to Trump's education secretary Betsy DeVos, who has been an outspoken proponent of "school choice" programs, such as charter schools or publicly funded vouchers that help pay the cost of attending private and parochial schools.
In February, shortly after she was confirmed as education secretary, DeVos toured a public school in Washington, D.C., and, after initially praising its teachers, also criticized them for not being assertive enough.
"But I can tell the attitude is more of a ‘receive mode.’ They’re waiting to be told what they have to do, and that’s not going to bring success to an individual child," DeVos said, according to a Huffington Post report. "You have to have teachers who are empowered to facilitate great teaching.”
"That narrative that’s coming out of the bully pulpit," McNiece said, "is one of 'How much more choice can I create for kids to leave public schools, and how bad are the teachers and how bad are things going for schools,' when actually in Kansas, and frankly across the nation, we’re all trying to do better."
McNiece said the criticism of teachers and public schools is contributing to a growing teacher shortage in Kansas that could soon reach crisis proportions.
Earlier in the day, education commissioner Randy Watson told the board that in two years, the state could be facing its biggest teacher shortage ever, based on the number of college and university students currently enrolled in teacher training programs.
Yoder, an Overland Park Republican who represents Kansas' 3rd District, faces a potentially tough re-election bid in 2018. He has been a close ally of Trump in Congress, even though Democrat Hillary Clinton got more votes from the 3rd District in the 2016 presidential race.
Also in 2016, voters in Johnson County ousted a number of conservative Republicans in the Kansas Legislature who were seen as less than friendly toward public schools, replacing them with Democrats and moderate Republicans who pushed through a major increase in school funding this year, albeit an increase that the Kansas Supreme Court recently said was still not enough to be constitutionally adequate.
So on a day when the U.S. House was in recess, Yoder came to the state board to talk about federal education funding, and to listen to concerns from the Kansas education community.
McNiece wasn't the only board member to complain about the tone coming out of Washington.
Board member Sally Cauble, a Republican from Liberal, said the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA program, which Trump has said he plans to phase out, is vital to her part of the state.
"The racism that's raising its ugly head because of the misinformation that is put out, it is very difficult to live in our part of the world," she said.
In addition, Watson said he thinks there is a pervasive, cultural animosity toward teachers which, combined with low pay, is deterring many young people from going into the profession.
"Honestly, right or wrong, there's a lot of discussion about what's wrong with education, and teachers, I think, generally feel like they've been put to blame for that," he said, comparing the way teachers are treated today with the way some soldiers were treated when they came home from the Vietnam War.
"I think we're going to have to talk seriously about the value of teaching in this country," Watson said. "Because if teachers thought everyone here valued them, and salaries were, I'm going to say, a little bit higher, I think that would go a long way."
Yoder said afterward that he understood the board's concerns about the tone in Washington.
"That resonates with me," he said during an interview afterward. "I think we all have to be advocates for our children, from the president all the way down to our local school boards. It's a joint effort."