Republican governor candidate Derek Schmidt blamed Democratic Gov. Laura Kelly for academic and mental health challenges of K-12 students and for a shortage of teachers in Kansas classrooms. (Sherman Smith/Kansas Reflector)
TOPEKA — Republican gubernatorial candidate Derek Schmidt rejected Monday the standing of Democratic Gov. Laura Kelly as a champion of public education amid evidence of declining student achievement and growing mental health challenges in wake of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Schmidt, who serves as the state’s attorney general, also blamed Kelly for the state’s shortage of classroom teachers.
He said Kansans were irritated Kelly’s response to the national health crisis in March 2020 was to make Kansas the first state to close school buildings and transition to online learning.
“Everywhere I go, Kansas parents express immense sadness, frustration, worry and sometimes anger with the still-lingering harm to our kids from Governor Kelly’s school lockdowns and mandates,” Schmidt said.
Kelly’s campaign for reelection has emphasized her administration returned financial stability to K-12 schools in Kansas following years of underfunding approved by one of her predecessors, GOP Gov. Sam Brownback. The state’s public education system has been fully funded for four years in accordance with Kansas Supreme Court interpretations of education mandates in the Kansas Constitution, she said.
“I ran for governor in 2018 because I knew that properly funding our schools was the first step to ensuring our kids receive the world-class education they deserve,” Kelly said. “The next generation is our future workforce pipeline and our schools are key to meeting the needs of our growing economy.”
Kelly said she was endorsed Monday by the Education First Shawnee Mission, a parent advocacy group associated with the Shawnee Mission School District in Johnson County.
In addition, the governor said that since sworn into office she had worked to convert 26 Community Mental Health Centers to be certified clinics with capabilities to treat mental health and substance abuse crises through integrated physical-behavioral care. She expanded the state’s ability to provide mental health care to Kansans closer to home by bringing new youth facilities online. She also invested $33 million in expanding mental health intervention programs from nine districts to 67 districts and from serving 1,708 students to close to 5,000 students annually.
Kelly’s campaign spokeswoman Lauren Fitzgerald said Schmidt’s office defended in court Brownback’s block-grant system of “flexible” funding of public education that abandoned reliance on a precise formula to distribute state tax dollars to local public school districts. The approach was viewed by Democrats as a mechanism for reducing spending on schools. It was struck down in 2017 as inadequate and unconstitutional by the Kansas Supreme Court.
“After defending Brownback’s education cuts in court,” Fitzgerald said, “the question for Derek Schmidt on education is simple: Who’s been better for our students? Governor Brownback or Governor Kelly?”
Schmidt said Kelly shouldn’t be regarded by voters as the state’s “education governor” based on measurable standards related to academics, mental health and teacher retention.
“She promised to be a champion for students and, in particular, to improve mental health outcomes. She broke those promises, and her heavy-handed pandemic response did more damage to our kids than any other governor in Kansas history,” Schmidt said.
Schmidt said other states allowed students to continue with in-person education during the pandemic. In Kansas, COVID-19 has been linked to the death of 8,935 people and infection of more than 835,000.
He pointed to Kansas State Department of Education reports indicating student proficiency in math declined 1.5 percentage points from 2019 to 2021, while the portion of students at the lowest level of achievement in math grew 6.1 percentage points. In terms of reading ability, there was a decline of 0.7 percentage points among those at the highest level of proficiency and a rise of 0.9 percentage points in the portion at the lowest level.
The state’s ranking on a school mental health scorecard stood at 33rd in the nation, Schmidt said, down from eighth in 2015. In 2021, the Kansas Communities that Care survey indicated 31% of teenagers in Kansas had contemplated suicide.
Meanwhile, the state Department of Education reported in July that 4% of teaching jobs statewide were unfilled. That would equate to a shortage of 1,400 educators.
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