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Politics, Elections and Government

Education Emerges As Major Issue in Race For Kansas Governor

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Sam Zeff
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KCUR

Everyone knew education was going to be an issue in the race for Kansas governor.

In debates and TV commercials, Republican incumbent Gov. Sam Brownback says he’s increased spending on public schools. His Democratic challenger, House Minority leader Paul Davis from Lawrence, claims Brownback has cut funding.

But the real political maneuvering on education may be happening in a commission created by the Kansas Legislature at the end of last session in the middle of the night. It was part of a deal to put an additional $129 million into public education to satisfy a state Supreme Court ruling.

The Kansas K-12 Student Performance and Efficiency Commission is charged with finding ways for school districts to better spend tax money. It has discussed everything from how much cash districts should have on hand to how to save money on building maintenance.

Sounds rather boring and bureaucratic — like a lot of wonky people sitting around with spreadsheets and hard-to-decipher formulas.

But partisan politics is driving everything.

“I think it’s easy to infer that certain political positions have been staked out in advance, yes," says state Rep. Melissa Rooker, a Republican from Fairway.

She’s on the House Committee on Education and has been monitoring the commission’s work from the audience in the opulent, old state supreme court chamber in the statehouse.

Democratic and Republican leaders were given appointments to the commission, as was the governor. It was billed as a bipartisan attempt to improve schools.

“This was a commission that was created through a process of political appointments. So, politics play into this,” says Rooker. 

But the commission wasn’t thrust into the campaign until Brownback brought it up at his first debate with Davis at the State Fair in Hutchinson. Brownback charged that Davis and his appointee to the commission want to consolidate rural schools to save money.

“I support our rural schools. I’m opposed to force consolidation of our rural schools,” Brownback thundered during the debate. 

And with its rural audience, the State Fair was the perfect place to raise the issue.

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Gov. Sam Brownback

Brownback went on to accuse former Republican state Sen. John Vratil, of Leawood, Davis’ appointee to the efficiency commission, of supporting consolidation. 

And, charged the governor, that means Davis backs consolidating rural schools, too. 

“I call on Rep. Davis to remove John Vratil as his top education advisor and from the education commission that he appointed him to,” Brownback said.

Both Vratil and Davis deny they want to consolidate schools.

But many following the commission’s work say a group that was already political may have been poisoned by the gubernatorial election.

Commission chairman Sam Williams, a retired advertising executive from Wichita appointed by Brownback, says all involved knew all the commissioners points of view before they started holding hearings.

He doesn’t deny there’s politics, but he says work to benefit kids is getting done.

“In the room, I don’t believe, it has affected us. What’s going on outside I have no control over," he says. "I’ve just taken the point of view that I’m not going to hurt, I’m not going to help I’m just going to get done what I was asked to do as a member of this commission and be the chair.”

School districts and teachers all over Kansas are watching what the commission is doing and many are worried.

Teachers are worried because commissioners have debated whether state law should be changed to vastly narrow what teachers can negotiate in their contracts. And districts are worried because how they account for and spend their money might  change.

“If the conversation is about efficiency just to save money then it’s a conversation that ends up hurting kids across the state of Kansas,” says David Smith, Chief of Staff in the Kansas City, Kansas Public Schools.

He admits he's worried about the politics of the commission and whether funding for at-risk students might be cut.

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Rep. Paul Davis

“I’m worried this may be an opportunity for people who don’t want to spend on public education, and particularly the children that we service in this community, that this might be a way to take money out of the system, to take money away from the kids that we serve," Smith says. "That is definitely a fear.”

In the end, he says he believes the politics of the commission, complicated by a close and increasingly bitter race for governor, will take a back to seat to what’s good for Kansas kids.

But state Rep. Rooker, who is at odds with her party on almost every education issue, isn’t so sure.

“I don’t think there’s enough time for the real work to come out of this commission," she says. "I think they’ve identified some key issues that deserve real work, deserve real study, real impartial third parties. People not invested in one particular outcome ought to be studying these issues.”

The commission has until January to produce a report for the Legislature. Lawmakers can turn that report into legislation or it might just sit on a shelf.

Whoever becomes governor will have a lot of say in what happens with the commission’s work.

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