Kansas education funding faces political debate amid labor shortage
As Kansas lawmakers search for solutions to a workforce shortage, government funding for education remains a politically charged topic as politicians recognize a need for schools to produce workers.
Blake Flanders, president of the Kansas Board of Regents, told the Special Committee on Workforce Development on Monday that the talent pipeline faces challenges.
“As I’ve heard from employers, more than ever, I feel like there’s a bit of a sense of desperation,” Flanders said. “It used to be employers would say, ‘We’re not getting the exact talent we need and we’d like this skillset to be developed.’ And now sometimes from more I’m hearing, ‘We just need someone to come to work; we need someone that’s going to show up.'”
Democratic Gov. Laura Kelly touted workforce development and higher education while at the groundbreaking for the Panasonic electric vehicle battery plant, financed in part by state incentives. Likewise, Panasonic executives recognized the need for education and workforce development, writing a donation to De Soto schools.
“We’ve worked hard to help Panasonic and other companies build their futures here in Kansas,” Kelly said. “Our historic investments in K-12 and higher education have supported a talent pipeline and outstanding workforce.”
But Republican legislators question whether increased funding has improved outcomes.
More:Kansas officials says state needs Panasonic workers — but hope this tool might boost workforce
Higher education enrollment dropping in Kansas
State data show enrollment has been declining for the past decade, with an acceleration during the pandemic. Community colleges and Washburn University were hit much harder than state universities. Meanwhile, technical colleges have seen growth.
“We are seeking ways to increase our enrollments,” Flanders said. “It’s good for the institutions and it’s good for Kansas. But that’s one part of the equation. You also need to retain and graduate those students. So it’s not just about recruiting the students, you have to make sure they’re successful.”
College going rates have also been on the decline recently across in-state public and private institutions, as well as out-of-state schools. Despite the recent declines, in-state private schools are up slightly from 2015.
Flanders said the pandemic accelerated existing long-term trends of declining student enrollment.
Sen. Virgil Peck, R-Havana, suggested political ideology may be behind to blame for public schools losing students while private schools saw a modest bump.
“I’m wondering myself if it may not have to do with the fact that Kansans are still basically conservative-minded and our in-state private colleges are not teaching some of the liberal woke things to our students that our public universities are teaching,” Peck said.
“That also might kind of explain the increase in the technical college population,” said Rep. Sean Tarwater, R-Stilwell.
Flanders declined to respond.
Sen. Renee Erickson, R-Wichita, noted that Wichita State University has bucked the trend, increasing its enrollment while recruiting out-of-state students in the I-35 corridor. Flanders credited the university’s partnership with industry, assisting students in finding internships and jobs.
“So WSU is already partnering and having internships and increasing enrollment and recruiting students out of state,” Erickson said. “So my question is why aren’t the other universities paying attention and going, ‘Gee, we don’t have to wait for legislative action, we can already do this.'”
“They are,” Flanders replied. “Wichita State started earlier, but the other institutions are doing it as well.”
He pointed to Scorpion Biological Services locating to Manhattan, which is expected to get workers from Kansas State University and Manhattan Area Technical College. The University of Kansas was involved in discussions about the Panasonic plant near Lawrence. At Wichita State, aviation programs are putting students into jobs on aircraft conversions.
Flanders said former Wichita State president John Bardo came up with the I-35 corridor strategy nine years ago.
“Now that strategy is beginning to pay dividends,” Flanders said.
More:$50M hangar investment could attract $3 billion in Boeing 777 modification work in Kansas, Wichita State says
Kansas funding blamed for lower college enrollment
“In terms of recruiting, we are not going to be able to feed our industry on the talent we have inside this state alone,” Flanders said. “We do not have enough people.”
Rep. Stephanie Clayton, D-Overland Park, lamented declining enrollment and a seeming lack of recruitment of Kansas kids vs. out-of-state students.
Flanders blamed state funding levels.
“Kansas trails the entire region significantly in the amount of state-based aid,” Flanders said.
He said legislative appropriations have helped.
“Last year, you invested in need-based aid and required us — which I think is appropriate — to match it with foundation dollars,” Flanders said. “We’re asking for that again.”
Tarwater, who is the committee chair, was unconvinced.
“Why is it that the state has to bring more money to the table before you dip into your foundation aid?” he asked. “Why can’t you do that without us demanding it?”
“We can,” Flanders replied. “But it would be half. If you put in a dollar and we put in a dollar, it’s twice as much.”
As legislators debate student financial aid, Kansas is one of the states that signed onto a federal lawsuit via outgoing Republican Attorney General Derek Schmidt to block student debt relief from Democratic President Joe Biden’s administration.
The White House estimated that more than 360,000 Kansans stand to benefit from more than $5.8 billion in relief from the executive action.
More:How can Kansans get their student loans forgiven? Here’s what to know, how to apply
Attorney General-elect Kris Kobach, a Republican, vowed during the campaign to continue the litigation.
“It is unconstitutional for the U.S. president by executive decree to spend $500 billion forgiving student loans,” Kobach said during a debate. “Our constitution lays out very clearly that only the legislative branch has the authority to spend money and tax the citizens.”
Kobach also said the Biden policy is unfair.
“You may have decided to not attend the most expensive college and choose a cheaper one, or maybe you didn’t go to college, or maybe you work your way through college — and you now are going to be saddled with paying the bills to pay off the loans of somebody else who decided to go to the most expensive college and was not quite sure how he was going to pay for it,” he said. “It is horribly unfair, especially when we talk about people who didn’t go to college at all because they couldn’t afford it.”
Kansas student achievement benchmarks declining
Erickson, the Wichita senator, questioned Flanders on college readiness and remedial education — which Flanders said benchmarks show are declining — while pointing out that ACT scores have declined amid increased K-12 funding. Flanders referred K-12 funding questions to the Kansas State Department of Education.
Neither the Education Department nor the Kansas State Board of Education were listed among the conferees at either Monday’s meeting or a previous one in September.
“When the scores are going down on ACTs, it proves the additional money is not providing the benefit,” said Peck, the Havana senator.
More:Kansas high school seniors’ ACT scores remain flat, while nation’s average falls to historic low
Rep. Pam Curtis, D-Kansas City, suggested that past underfunding of education is still to blame.
“We still have kids that are graduating now from high school that were going to school K-12 when we were not full-funding education,” she said.
Flanders acknowledged that “early childhood interventions are incredibly effective long term, we have evidence of that.”
Dave Trabert, of Kansas Policy Institute, whose book on school choice was promoted by himself and the committee chairman during the hearing, was critical of public education management. Trabert contends there is a “student achievement crisis” and that a barrier to improving public education is “a false sense of high achievement.”
“Simply put, our system is graduating kids, giving diplomas to kids, knowing that a large number of them are below grade level in reading and math,” he said. “One of the big workforce challenge issues (is) that we’re putting kids out there who are not really prepared to go into the workforce or to go on for other higher education.”
Trabert said the state building needs assessment “has been pretty blatantly ignored by the public education system.”
Sen. Brenda Dietrich, R-Topeka, said Trabert was “driving a stake through my heart.” Dietrich is the retired superintendent of Auburn-Washburn USD 437.
“I think you’ll see some improvement there,” Dietrich said of the building needs assessment after spending time working on it last year “to make sure we had all the pieces in a workable format.”
“You really did do a lot of work on that. Unfortunately the school districts pretty much ignored it,” Trabert said.
“Well, I don’t think so in my area, because I have actually been in touch with them and I’ve seen how they’re using them, so I feel good about my area,” Dietrich said.
Tarwater said that in talking to industry officials and college professors, “a lot of private schools are struggling, too.”
“In general, we need to look at how we’re raising our kids,” he said, “and we need some accountability and some discipline.”