Teachers Union Says They Were Not Behind First Lady Protest

By John Celock

The Kansas teachers union is pushing back at accusations that their members refused to applaud the state’s first lady prior to the State of the State Address.

Kansas National Education Association communications director Marcus Baltzell said that people wearing the union’s signature red shirts in the state House gallery Thursday night were not affiliated with the union. Multiple sources have told The Celock Report this group did not participate in the standing ovation for First Lady Mary Brownback and Ruth Colyer, the lieutenant governor’s wife, prior to Gov. Sam Brownback’s (R) address. The KNEA and Brownback have been at odds over proposed changes to the state’s school funding formula and changes to the state’s teacher tenure law passed last year. School funding was a major plank in the governor’s speech.

The sources said the people wearing the shirts in the gallery did stand up but did not applaud Mrs. Brownback or Mrs. Colyer and did not stand during a second standing ovation during the speech when the governor recognized his wife. In addition, sources say those wearing the red shirts did not applaud Brownback when he was introduced in the House chamber.

Those wearing the shirts were also said to have held their hands up, the same gesture used by the KNEA. One source indicated the group appeared to contain 15 people.

“We weren’t permitted in the gallery. There were also reports of folks unaffiliated with us wearing our shirts,” Balzell told The Celock Report in an interview conducted entirely on Twitter. “This wouldn’t be the first time unaffiliated people have been encouraged to try to sully an event like this. In fact, we’ve come to expect it.”

Balzell said that during last year’s campaign it was not uncommon for people wearing red shirts similar to the ones that the KNEA issued that they created on their own. He said this included a gubernatorial debate at last year’s state fair and prior to a rally at the Capitol last year. He also said that the red shirts were available for a period of time last year on the union’s website and could be obtained by a non-member.

KNEA wearing the union’s shirt were in the Capitol hallways before and during the speech and then joined legislative Democrats for a press conference. Balzell said that Capitol police praised the KNEA members’ behavior during the event. He also stressed that members were given a reminder via Facebook prior to the speech about appropriate decorum and were given reminders when they arrived at the Capitol.

“I’m simply saying that a shirt doesn’t necessarily make you a teacher or KNEA member,” he said. “And if something like this did occur, we certainly don’t condone it any more than we would condone.”

Devin Wilson, an education activist and parent from Johnson County, used Twitter to back up Balzell’s account, saying that he saw others in the Capitol Thursday night who were not affiliated with KNEA but were wearing red.

“I definitely saw non-KNEA red t-shirts, red coats, regular Kansans in the Statehouse tonight,” Wilson tweeted Thursday night.

It is unclear how the group obtained access to the gallery. Tickets to the gallery were distributed by state legislators, with each lawmaker being able to obtain one ticket or pass their ticket to another lawmaker. Other tickets were distributed outside of the legislative channels. Lawmakers do not need to disclose who they give their tickets to.

At least one GOP lawmaker described the non-standing as “classless” and attributed to the issue to the union.

“Kansas has some amazing teachers and we’re proud of them,” Rep. J.R. Claeys (R-Salina) told The Celock Report Thursday night. “These classless few union cronies don’t represent real teachers who make the sacrifice to commit themselves to a profession that serves hundreds of thousand of Kansas kids.”

Protests of not applauding a first lady or a governor when entering the chamber for a State of the State, while uncommon, have occurred in the past. Wyoming state Rep. Dan Zwonitzer (R-Cheyenne) told The Celock Report Thursday night that in 2014 he observed several Tea Party aligned Republican lawmakers decline to stand up for a standing ovation when Gov. Matt Mead (R) and his wife, Carol, entered the House chamber for his State of the State address. Carol Mead has entered the House chamber alongside her husband during each of his five addresses.

Batzell stressed that people should not assume the KNEA is involved.

“I’m simply suggesting that without verification that these folks were our members, we shouldn’t assume they were,” he said.