Watching teacher strikes in West Virginia and Oklahoma last year, Kali Barnett felt for the women and men marching for better pay and legislative support. She was teaching in New York at the time, but had taught in Kansas for six years, struggling with frozen salaries, shrinking staffs and growing class sizes due to government funding cuts.
“At some point last fall ... I looked at my therapist and I was like ‘There has to be people in Congress on the federal level who can help have some base teacher salaries and things in place that will help their work environment … There’s got to be more people like me who have been in the industry and understand what it feels like and has ideas for change.’ ” Barnett said. “And then I just paused and I looked at my therapist and I said 'Oh. I guess I could do it.' ”
After spending more than 11 years teaching music in Wichita and the greater New York City area, Barnett is back in Garden City, her hometown, to do just that. She is considering running as a Democrat for Kansas’ 1st Congressional District, a seat currently held by U.S. Rep. Roger Marshall, R-Great Bend. If she won, she would be the first woman to hold the federal district in the position’s history.
Marshall is considering running for Sen. Pat Roberts' seat on the U.S. Senate. Roberts, R-Topeka, has announced that he does not plan to run for re-election in 2020.
The potential campaign would be Barnett’s first foray into politics, she said, and the jump to the federal level is “huge.” But she believes she brings a valuable perspective to the role, especially regarding her background in teaching and connections to farming.
“The thing that I bring to the table is a lot of life experience,” Barnett said.
A graduate of Friends University and Wichita State University, where she received her master’s, Barnett is a Garden City High School theater kid-turned-teacher who spent her senior year of high school speaking out against heart disease during her campaign for Miss Garden City, and has spent the last several years creating a sing-along children’s book, Fred the Bee.
And when she began teaching, a lack of government support affected her three months into her first teaching job, when she received an email encouraging her to fight for her job in the face of staffing cuts, she said. As positions were cut and class sizes grew — at one point, she had 40 kindergartners in a class at once — and the school days stretched.
At the same time, salaries were static, some faculty members not receiving raises for 10 years, she said. It was a “catalyst” for Barnett’s eventual move to New York, she said — the state’s system better supported and paid teachers. But stronger federal support for teachers and regulations on class sizes, among other things, could have helped educators across the country, she said.
“I just found myself in this position where I loved my job but it just kept getting more and more difficult and I wasn’t getting compensated for the hard work that I was doing … ” Barnett said. “I’ve learned from being in lots of different schools and situations that the problems across the board on a national level are just insurmountable. There’s just not enough support for teachers.”
The same could be said for Barnett’s other key issue: the success and security of farmers. Barnett is the daughter of third-generation farmers, she said. Growing up, her father farmed land in Finney County, most of which was owned by someone else. When the owner sold the land, Barnett’s family soon filed for bankruptcy. Two weeks before they had planned to hold an auction for some of the family’s farming equipment and belongings, her father had a massive heart attack and died, she said. She was 17.
Before, she remembers him asking through tears where he would go from that point, she said. He’d been a farmer his whole life and it’s all he knew.
“It was just incredibly traumatic for emotional reasons, and he was the farmer of our family,” Barnett said. “My mom was his accountant. It’s just life-changing in so many different ways. And there’s no regulations in place for when that happens to families … I know firsthand what it feels like for farmers.”
Federal support systems for teachers and farmers are Barnett’s key issues, but she’s interested in supporting other initiatives, as well, she said. She’s in favor of researching renewable energy, bolstering infrastructure and transportation systems and supporting working families and immigration.
“We’ve not been able to mobilize and support many of the immigration population for lots of reasons, and it’s time we as a community support people from different backgrounds, including LGBTQ … ” Barnett said.
Barnett said she understands the difficulties of a campaign spanning the whole of western Kansas and she hopes to connect with people in every community she would visit. As someone originally from southwest Kansas, she hopes to make far-off politics tangible, bridge the gap between constituent and representative and act as a voice for the changes Kansans need.
“I think politicians have gotten a bad name,” Barnett said. “I want to change the stigma around that. I’m a person from southwest Kansas who loves my community, loves my people and just want to represent them.”
Contact Amber Friend at firstname.lastname@example.org.