Q&A: Karen Godfrey, President of the Kanas Chapter of the National Education Association
- Dec. 10, 2012
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Karen Godfrey is the president of the Kansas chapter of the National Education Association (KNEA), an advocacy group for Kansas educators and the needs of students in the state at all levels. PoliticalFiber.com reporter Michael Auchard spoke with Godfrey about the state of education in Kansas and what to expect looking forward. Here are edited excerpts from that interview.
What does the future hold for the state of Kansas in the next five years in terms of education?
I’m proud that KNEA is representing the voice of the teachers, so we have things like the Common Core Standards [which is the updated way Kansas began assessing students in 2012]. … They’re going to focus more on broad, deeper thinking standards. So, that’s exciting. That’s going to help kids to be college- and career-ready as they finish school. …
There’s been a lot of focus on evaluation systems and how to help us all improve — beyond just teachers. …
There’s some concern that there would be legislative action that would impact some of those issues that may not reflect the longstanding work and collaboration that we’ve had with education groups.
And then there’s funding, which I’m sure you know has been a controversial issue. Much of the Kansas state budget goes to school funding, as well it should. It’s actually the constitutional responsibility for the state to provide funding. As the economy has struggled and various things have happened, school funding has suffered greatly in the last several years. With the new tax law that will go into effect this year, I think everyone in education is very concerned about how that’s going to impact schools. It’s projected in the next six years we would lose $2.5 billion in state revenue, and that’s a huge amount. When half of our state revenue typically goes to schools, it’s just very hard to imagine a scenario where schools don’t suffer.
Would you say funding is the number one issue going forward with education right now?
If we’re not going to have funding, we’re not going to be able to serve our students very well. We have schools that have 30 kindergarten students in a classroom. I can’t even imagine trying to coordinate and engage that many students at a time. Lots of schools have lost programs. We have schools without librarians. That’s all the things that have happened. That’s where we are now, let alone with this funding issue. Certainly it is a huge issue that I hope will be addressed seriously. There’s also the lawsuits and that decision hasn’t come out and we’ll see how that impacts everything. Certainly that’s a huge issue, but there are other issues [that are just as important].
There’s ESEA and Race To The Top and some of those influences; there’s been a large emphasis on [employee] evaluation, which is great. It’s hard to know how you’re doing if no one is looking at it and trying to make a sensible assessment of how people are doing.
… Right now, the state is working on meeting the requirement for the ESEA waiver. That requires that student achievement is a significant factor in evaluation, and that’s a tough one. … I don’t think many people in Kansas think that’s a very good idea, so we’re wrestling with how to come up with a meaningful assessment of students that would apply to all of our teachers. I mean, our state assessments are reading and math. My husband taught industrial arts. How is that going to help determine if he’s being an effective teacher or not?
With budget cuts —in addition to all of the other issues moving forward right now — is Kansas expected to be able to compete with other states in the future, regionally or nationally?
We’ve always been very competitive with education. I’m very proud of what Kansas has achieved in education. We consistently rank in the top 10, and usually higher on almost any measure. So, funding will certainly impact that, I agree.
One of the things you may have read is that there is sometimes a delayed impact in funding. Some legislators argued, “Look, we cut funding and our test scores still stayed up.” Well, you know, those things catch up eventually. We have schools that haven’t ordered new materials for a long time, or those kinds of things. I know of schools that have had new iPads but didn’t have any software to go with them, so those were not very useful. It’s not that money matters, it’s that resources matter and you get resources with money — and wise use of money, too.
There’s been a lot of interest in being efficient. I think our districts have worked hard to be more efficient, and we’ve seen some changes over the years. To continue to expect that somehow [we’ll find] additional efficiencies in the job of educating students much cheaper is probably not realistic.
You speak of other organizations. Are there private groups that are going to be able to pick up funding if it’s cut and offer some aid, or does the burden rest solely on the state?
We’ve always seen private groups have an impact, but it is the state’s responsibility to fund schools. I worry about, when we start to rely on private groups to do that, there’s nothing to make that equitable for one thing. Certainly, some of our communities have a lot more private groups that might have resources at their disposal than other communities. That cannot be how we conduct ourselves as an education community and as a state. That doesn’t allow it to be fair at all.
Grants, for example, are very nice and often times they support innovative ideas, but they can kind of direct what you have to do, too, because you have to meet the requirements of the grant. That may have not been what the collective knowledge and expertise of people thought should be happening, but if you want the grant that’s what you have to do. Those kinds of things aren’t the healthy way to move forward, I believe.
What is KNEA’s role at the college level in the state, and can you give a forecast for the state’s education policies at that level?
We are [most] commonly working with the community college groups and represent them and help them move forward. That’s what we do with membership. Obviously, we’re concerned about what happens in higher education as well. There are issues there that all of us look toward.
I think a lot of people worry more about higher education because some of the funding cuts have impacted higher education, perhaps, at a relatively larger extent than K-12. I mean, K-12 is more visible, perhaps, but certainly we’ve seen funding be a huge issue at the higher education level. They get less state funding, so they have less funds to work with. That means they increase tuition and that has gotten to be a challenge for many of our families to meet the tuition needs. It should be a goal for our state, and even the governor will say, that everyone should get some kind of post-secondary training. We have to make that accessible to people and that again means the resources have to be accessible so it isn’t then passed on to the consumer, which in this case is the college student.
Do you think the recent election cycle has helped or hindered Kansas in regards to future education?
As we finished the general election, and we saw this trend in the primary, too, the legislature that will start in January is going to be more conservative than it was last year. Kansas is a typically a fairly conservative state. We’ve learned to work together well. Certainly, KNEA — we work with Republicans, we work with Democrats, we work with people who are going to help move forward in education. But, I do believe that some of the people who helped with funding in the past are no longer in the legislature, so that’s a concern. Some of the other issues might go more conservatively than they have in the past.
Do you have any more points about education in Kansas you think are important for people to know about?
I hope that people are really paying attention to public education. We have great schools in Kansas, but it’s easy to take things for granted. It’d be good for people to get into the schools and see what’s happening and see what it means to have 28 kids in an AP history class. Those add challenges. It’s the people who elect the people who go to the legislature, so I think a lot of the awareness has to be at that level.