Schools are at the center of race for Kansas governor as Schmidt and Kelly court parents

Jaime Green

For the first time in 16 years, Kansans will vote for their governor when the state is neither in the midst of a school funding lawsuit nor on the brink of one.

But education remains at the forefront of the contest between incumbent Democratic Gov. Laura Kelly and Kansas Attorney General Derek Schmidt, the Republican challenger.

Kelly and her allies have spent months touting her work to infuse funds into public schools in accordance with a 2019 plan that closed a lawsuit over school finance. She has promised to do more, while warning the state could fall back into underfunded schools under Schmidt.

“I will always work to fully fund our schools and keep us out of court so we can can focus on the important things we need to be doing in schools,” Kelly said last month in a debate against Schmidt.

Schmidt has argued the increased funding of schools was made meaningless by closures Kelly ordered at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, which have correlated with decreased test scores.

He has repeated throughout the race that full funding of schools only works “if you don’t lock the kids out of them.”

Kansas schools are better staffed and funded than they were four years ago but test scores have fallen and districts report that teachers are leaving the field in higher numbers.

“As a parent and taxpayer, you say the money is flowing, but where did it go? If scores aren’t improving? If we’ve got more kids in financial distress?” asked Brian Connell, who serves on the Olathe school board but told The Star he is only speaking as a parent and taxpayer.

Schmidt and Kelly are often talking past one another. Last week, Schmidt’s campaign put out a new ad featuring a Wichita mom, Natalie Ellis, criticizing Kelly for closing schools.

Kelly’s allies responded with a press conference aimed at attacking Schmidt for voting for a budget that underfunded schools in 2005 and defending Kansas in the school funding lawsuit that lasted from 2010 until 2019.

Schmidt retorted that Kelly was attacking parents.

The episode highlighted both campaigns’ focus. Kelly has focused on the financial aspect of education, while Schmidt has sought to tap into parental anger.

Schmidt has campaigned with Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin, two Republicans who have harnessed parental frustration over both the pandemic and curriculum. He’s promised to prioritize the passage of a parental bill of rights.

The two candidates will face off in their second and final debate Wednesday at the Johnson County Bar Association. Education is almost certain to be front and center.

Connell, a Republican parent, said both Schmidt and Kelly have fallen short in their messaging.

“I don’t think either one of them really has a good plan for education,” Connell said. “They’re both running on the past and emotions, and that’s frustrating as a taxpayer and voter. To say over half of our money is being spent on education and neither one of them has a very clear plan on how to fix the system and have accountability, that’s bad for Kansans.”

How are schools doing?

Public education advocates say the state of Kansas schools today as compared to 2018 is a mixed bag.

Schools have increased spending power because of raised state funding under the settlement and an influx of federal pandemic relief dollars. But COVID-19 delivered a sharp blow to student achievement metrics in Kansas and nationwide.

“This is not anything our governor, our Legislature or even our schools had a tremendous amount of control over,” said Mark Tallman, director of education advocacy at the Kansas Association of School Board.

Kelly took office a few years into a major overhaul of Kansas’ public education system, shifting how students are taught and prepared for life beyond graduation. The Kansas State Department of Education’s “Kansans Can” program transformed education across the state, placing less emphasis on assessment scores and more on soft skills to ready students for the workforce.

Kansas has been one of the most aggressive states in moving schools toward the new approach, following a nationwide trend of rethinking test scores to measure student achievement and acceptance into college.

Last year, celebrating the five-year mark of the program, education officials touted the success of redesigning schools. Officials said the 88% graduation rate was the highest in state history. Dropout rates have fallen. And more students were seeking education after high school.

But over the same period, the state saw flat or falling assessment scores. The proportion of students in the lowest-performing categories for math and English on state assessments, for example, had grown over the last five years. In English, about 21% of students were in the lowest-performing category in 2015, compared to more than 29% in 2019.

Then came COVID-19. As the virus threatened lives, Kelly was the first governor to decide to close schools statewide in the spring of 2020, followed by the rest of the country. And up until this new school year, students failed to receive a typical education, as they bounced back and forth between virtual and in-person classes, or in more urban districts, stayed at home completely.

Kelly has repeatedly said she makes “no apologies” for closing schools because it was necessary to protect the lives of students and teachers.

Teachers have left the field at higher rates than in previous years, Kansas City area districts reported. And this year, districts have seen record staff shortages, due to frustrations over pay, heavy workloads, politics seeping into schools and more.

Last fall, the state education department released a glimpse into the impacts of the pandemic on student achievement — as educators nationwide warned that classroom disruptions could lead to learning loss. Statewide scores dropped across the board in 2021, and most startling, 34% of students scored below grade level in math, an increase of about six percentage points from 2019.

Kansas is no outlier. National test results released this fall show that the pandemic erased two decades of growth in math and reading for children across the country, experts say. Reading scores had their greatest decline in 30 years.

“Absolutely there’s no doubt that due to COVID we took a hit. But look at other measures: post-secondary success, graduation rates, kindergarten readiness. I think Kansas is on the right track,” Ann Mah, Kansas Board of Education member, a Democrat, told The Star.

State Rep. Kristey Williams, an Augusta Republican, says the score drops should not be attributed to the pandemic alone.

“I think that there has been a shift in attention more to social-emotional learning rather than shifting and focusing on educating our kids with the basics,” Williams said.

How would schools change under Schmidt?

Schmidt has promised major changes to education.

He’s pledged to pursue greater school choice opportunities, sign a parents’ bill of rights and bar transgender athletes from girls sports.

“Our public schools function at the highest level when engaged parents are deeply involved in their children’s education, when they work in tandem with a good classroom teacher. Nothing is more important than educating the next generation of Kansans, and we need to put students and parents first,” Schmidt said in a statement.

Existing school choice programs have been moderately expanded during the Kelly administration. But Williams, the chair of the House K-12 Budget Committee, said establishing educational savings accounts would be a top priority if Schmidt were governor.

“Not all kids learn best in the same environment,” Williams said. “We need to recognize that and we need to move from the traditional type of public school to any type of schooling that best fits the needs of that child.”

Educational savings accounts would allow students to take the money Kansas spends on their public education to cover the costs of private school tuition or homeschooling.

Schmidt campaign manager C.J. Grover said Kansas’ existing programs have been successful in helping students find the environment they will perform best in. Public school advocates worry it will pull the best students out of public schools and leave fewer resources for the students that are left, primarily children with greater needs, such as those in special education.

Meanwhile, Jim Porter, president of the Kansas State Board of Education, said the parents’ bill of rights will worsen the state’s teacher shortage.

“It’s not designed to help anybody, it’s designed to control,” Porter said.

The Kelly campaign has largely avoided directly engaging on Schmidt’s curriculum-based proposals. Kelly vetoed the parents’ bill of rights this year deeming it the “teacher demoralization act” and the legislation earned steep criticism from teachers across the state.

But when asked last week how Schmidt would directly harm schools, David Toland, Kelly’s lieutenant governor, couldn’t give a clear answer. He called Schmidt’s campaigning on parental involvement a “red herring.”

“What I would point to is the fact that we have a record in the Kelly administration of consistently delivering for our kids,” Toland said. “On the other hand, you’ve got our opponent, who is attempting to recast himself as someone he’s not.”

Kelly’s messaging urges Kansans to stay the course — full state funding of schools and leaving curriculum decisions to local school boards. On Tuesday, her campaign announced the endorsement of 200 parents who supported that vision. The list included Lauren Tice Miller, a former Democratic staffer and lobbyist for the Kansas National Educators Association, and Judith Deedy, founder of Game On for Kansas, a parents group that endorsed Kelly alongside Stand Up Blue Valley and Education First Shawnee. KNEA endorsed Kelly alongside AFT-Kansas, the state’s other prominent teacher’s union.

Kelly promised in a second term to renew focus on early childhood education and make another push for increased special education funding.

Kansas currently falls short of its statutory requirement to fund 92% of the costs of special education. Kelly sought to add additional funding to the budget in April, but lawmakers rejected funneling additional dollars into public schools.

“In contrast, Derek Schmidt is pushing a national divisive agenda, because he can’t answer for his own failed record of defending Sam Brownback’s unconstitutional cuts to education and even stated at the State Fair Debate that we should not be funding special education,” Andrus said, referencing Schmidt’s comments last month that the federal government, not the state, should increase special education funding.

“People say Gov. Kelly is hanging her hat on fully funding public schools, shouldn’t that have always been the case? But we know we had almost an entire decade where it wasn’t. Kids who entered kindergarten just about graduated never having known full funding in a classroom. Now that we have that, that’s a big accomplishment,” said Marcus Baltzell, a spokesman for the Kansas National Education Association, the state’s largest teachers union.

“She has not been fueled by the national kind of dark money that has funded the push to vilify schools. She has been the goalkeeper against very harmful policies through her veto pen.”