I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. It was August of 2016, and I was on my way to Indianapolis with my children for a swim meet as the primary election results began to trickle in. One by one, ultraconservative legislators who’d decimated school funding in Kansas were being replaced by moderate Republicans who’d run on a platform of rescinding Governor Brownback’s radical tax plan, and restoring fiscal sanity and school funding. For the first time in ages public school advocates finally had something to celebrate.
My adventure in public education advocacy had begun several years before when, during the Great Recession, I was tapped to be the PTA Legislative Liaison at my children’s elementary school. As I stepped into the role, I became increasingly aware of the depths of cuts to our local school district’s budgets. In three years, the operating budget had been cut by nearly $30 million.
I joined a small group of parents from our school who were meeting with local school board member
s and legislators. This was when I started learning about school funding in Kansas, and that the Kansas Supreme Court had recently ruled that the state had been unconstitutionally underfunding our schools for years. But even as funding was frozen then slashed during the recession, our political leaders indicated that they believed schools still had more room to cut. They made it clear that they would not be looking to restore the lost funding even after the recession ended.
The situation was deteriorating rapidly, and yet as I could see at my own school, parents weren’t engaged. We began a parent outreach effort within our school’s PTA and decided to call it Game On. Our thinking was that a lot of people don’t like politics, but do like sports. We hoped people would find our information more accessible if we used a sports analogy. “Get off the sidelines and get in the game,” we encouraged. “There’s a game being played, and we’re not fielding a team.”
Realizing that educating Kansans about the damage being done to public education in our state would require more than just the parents at our school, we started a Facebook page and formed a 501(c)(4). Before long, we’d caught the attention of the state school board association and superintendent association and grown to be a statewide advocacy effort.
Still, this was an uphill battle. After Sam Brownback was elected governor in 2010, our legislature took a turn towards the far right. In 2012, numerous moderate Republicans were ousted. Brownback pushed a catastrophic tax plan through the legislature, but it took a while for the full extent of the damage to become apparent to Kansas citizens. We also faced the ongoing efforts of a very active member of the State Policy Network, the Kansas Policy Institute and the Kansas chapter of Americans for Prosperity. Koch Industries is headquartered in Wichita, the city the Kochs call home. These organizations were regularly invited into the Kansas statehouse and fed legislators talking points, characterizing our public schools as overfunded and underperforming.
We’d originally planned to stay out of elections and stick with policy work, but the more familiar we became with legislators we realized there were too many of them who weren’t listening to us or their constituents. Too many legislators claimed to be pro-public education even as their votes told a very different story. We started endorsing candidates, labeling incumbents who consistently supported Kansas public education as our “Varsity Roster,” new pro-public education candidates as “Top Recruits,” while legislators who consistently voted against our schools were “Benched for Academic Ineligibility.”
In 2013, shortly after the 2012 elections that saw our legislature swing hard to the right, one of our members proposed a 60-mile walk to the state capitol in Topeka to raise awareness about the financial crisis impacting our schools. With assistance from a few of us, she completed the walk, followed by a small press conference. It was just the beginning. By 2016, we had three simultaneous walks starting from the Kansas City area, Manhattan and Emporia with the three walks meeting in Topeka and a rally with hundreds of people in the Capitol building.
The walks helped us attract press attention and showed people they weren’t alone in seeing damage to their schools. Best of all, our strategy began to show results at the polls. After a wave of moderate Republicans ousted ultraconservative lawmakers in 2014, my faith in my state was restored.
I wish I could say my story ends there. If someone had told me in 2008 that I’d still have an unpaid part-time job as a public education advocate ten years out, I would have told them they were insane. But here I am. We have restored much of what was lost, but trouble looms. While Kansans elected a pro-public education Democrat as governor in 2018, the legislature once again moved to the right, a trend that accelerated in 2020. Today we’re facing an increasing push for school privatization and grumblings about the court forcing the legislature to fund public education. We’re also seeing the growing involvement of national and partisan PACs in school board races, as groups like the 1776 PAC seek to use CRT, DEI and COVID mitigation methods as wedge issues. I hate feeling that all the worst aspects of state and national politics are sinking into school board races but I hold out hope that reason will prevail.
More than a decade after my advocacy for Kansas’ public schools began, I continue to believe in this work, even as I find myself once again sounding the alarm in hopes that Kansans will act to prevent another disaster. My hope is that my children will be among the last to have gone their entire educational careers without constitutionally adequate funding.
Judith Deedy is one of the founding members and Executive Director of Game On for Kansas Schools, a public education grassroots advocacy group that has been working to promote sound policy and adequate funding for Kansas public schools and the children they serve since 2010. During that time, she has also served as a PTA president and legislative chair, a USA Swimming official and is the current General Chair of Missouri Valley Swimming. Judith is a graduate of Yale University and the University of Michigan Law School. She lives in Kansas with her husband, 17-year-old twins, and 20-year-old daughter when she is home from college.