TOPEKA — A Kansas man who operates an online tutoring service as “Mr. X, Mentor of Mathematics” is running for the State Board of Education in hopes of making it easier for professionals outside the public school system to become teachers.
Steve Roberts argues that state policies still place too much emphasis on ensuring that aspiring second-career teachers go back to college to study teaching methods – instead of quickly tapping their knowledge of subjects such as math and science, particularly in middle and high schools. Roberts, a self-described conservative Republican from the Kansas City suburb of Overland Park, is riling educators and renewing a debate that’s simmered for years.
Roberts is running for the open state board seat for the 2nd District, covering populous stretches of northern and eastern Johnson County. His opponent is Cindy Neighbor, a Shawnee Democrat and former Kansas House member who’s served 16 years on the Shawnee Mission school board.
“I’m committed to being a reformer,” Roberts said during a recent interview. “For someone to teach a music class, would you rather have someone who has training in music or pedagogy? The system says pedagogy.”
Neighbor contends that Roberts underestimates the need for aspiring teachers to have an understanding of different teaching methods, classroom management, child development and basic child psychology. Education officials contend that the state’s rules, allowing candidates to teach for up to three years while they finish their education coursework, aren’t onerous.
“Everybody doesn’t learn the same way,” Neighbor said. “You can’t just go in and teach physics without understanding who you’re teaching it to and how you’re getting across to your students.”
Five of the state board’s 10 seats are on the ballot in the Nov. 6 election, and contests in three districts are contested. Neighbor and Roberts are looking to replace Sue Storm, an Overland Park Democrat who’s not seeking re-election.
For years, residents of the suburban neighborhoods in the 2nd District have seen their schools as an economic magnet. They’ve been willing to increase local taxes to support them and have chafed at budget constraints imposed by the state.
Neighbor, 63, has had mixed success running as a moderate candidate for the Legislature over the past decade. She won a House seat as a Republican in 2002 but lost her 2004 GOP primary to a conservative. She returned to the House in 2006 as a Democrat who’d tied her fortunes partly to then-Democratic Gov. Kathleen Sebelius. But she lost the House seat in 2010 to another conservative Republican.
She has the endorsement of the Kansas National Education Association, the state’s largest teachers’ union. She touts an involvement with local schools that started three decades ago as a parent-teacher association “room mother.”
Roberts, 54, has had a varied career that includes stints as a truck driver, radio sports announcer, newspaper sports editor and federal tax examiner. He holds degrees in electrical engineering and education, and his “Mr. X” online tutoring service offers help with algebra, calculus, geometry and trigonometry.
He ran for the state board in 2008 as an independent candidate, garnering nearly 21,000 votes, or about 14 percent. Storm captured the seat with 48 percent of the vote.
This year’s race between Roberts and Neighbor comes amid an ongoing interest among conservative Republicans in turning the debate over education in Kansas to issues other than the state’s level of funding.
Conservative Gov. Sam Brownback appointed a task force last month to examine ways to make schools more efficient in their spending of state dollars, and House Appropriations Committee Chairman Marc Rhoades, a Newton Republican, said he’d like to press reform issues next year. And Rhoades said he’s interested in the policy questions Roberts is raising.
“The education establishment doesn’t want us to talk about it,” Rhoades said. “I think there are plenty of people who are naturally good, naturally gifted at teaching.”
The board’s policies allow someone interested in becoming a teacher to get a license as a “visiting scholar” after documenting advanced studies or extensive training in a particular study, “exceptional talent” or work of “outstanding distinction.” They can teach another two years under restricted licenses as they pursue up to 24 college credit hours of education courses.
Roberts said he agrees that people wanting to teach in elementary grades need such grounding in teaching methods and child development. But he contends it’s far less important when it comes to teaching in middle and high school. He said loosening the requirements is likely to help poor schools seeking qualified instructors.
But Karen Godfrey, the KNEA’s president, who’s on leave from a job teaching language arts at Seaman High School in north Topeka, contends the rules ensure that all students have qualified teachers.
“We wouldn’t put them under the care of a doctor who maybe is good at it eventually,” she said. “I wouldn’t want a CPA who hadn’t met the standards.”