After Wichita mom stars in Schmidt attack ad, defenders of Kelly as ‘education governor’ pounce

Commercial challenges governor’s COVID-19 decision to close school buildings

By: - September 29, 2022 10:37 am
Natalie Ellis appears in ad to support Derek Schmidt

Natalie Ellis, a Wichita mother of five children, says she supports Republican Derek Schmidt in the governor’s race because of the decision by Democratic Gov. Laura Kelly to close school buildings at outset of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020. (Kansas Reflector screen capture from Schmidt campaign ad)

TOPEKA — Natalie Ellis stars in the Republican gubernatorial candidate Derek Schmidt’s new attack commercial asserting Democratic Gov. Laura Kelly didn’t deserve to be regarded as an education governor.

Ellis, a Wichita mother of five children who previously appeared in pro-Schmidt campaign materials, said she was irritated Kelly became the nation’s first governor to order K-12 school buildings closed at outset of COVID-19 pandemic in 2020. Some Kansas districts had voluntarily taken that step in response to local school board or health department directives in conjunction with President Donald Trump’s national emergency declaration.

“The school lockdowns were hard on my children and every Kansas student,” Ellis said in the ad. “When Laura Kelly calls herself the ‘education governor’ it makes me angry. Kelly’s lockdowns and mandates did more damage to children than any governor in Kansas history.”

The Kelly campaign unleashed a torrent of rebuttal messaging Wednesday via Lt. Gov. David Toland, Senate Minority Leader Dinah Sykes, state Board of Education member Ann Mah, Lawrence school board president Shannon Kimball and leadership of the Kansas National Education Association, Game on for Kansas Schools and the American Federation of Teachers-Kansas. The Kansas Democratic Party piled on, too.

Toland said the record showed Schmidt, as attorney general, defended GOP Gov. Sam Brownback’s plan to abandon the state’s funding formula for K-12 schools in favor of a block-grant system that would freeze state spending on education for two years. Schmidt wasn’t persuasive with the Kansas Supreme Court, which rang the bell with an opinion declaring block grants a violation of the Kansas Constitution.

“Derek Schmidt was Sam Brownback’s top defender as he tried to dismantle public education in the state of Kansas,” Toland said. “Now, he’s out with a new ad that is attempting to rewrite history. Schmidt’s ad claims that he would fully fund public schools if he were elected. We’ve got some questions about that. Most importantly, why should we believe him now?”

Toland continued: “Derek Schmidt wanting to be in charge of education funding is like an arsonist wanting to be in charge of the fire department. It makes no sense.”

Lt. Gov. David Toland on Wednesday defended the public education credentials of Democratic Gov. Laura Kelly, who came under attack by GOP nominee Derek Schmidt. He challenged Kelly’s decision to close Kansas public school buildings early in the COVID-19 pandemic. (Tim Carpenter/Kansas Reflector)

Four years full funding

Schmidt was unsuccessful on Brownback’s behalf in 2017, but successfully defended a separate school finance law signed by Kelly that was upheld as constitutional by the state Supreme Court in 2019. That law set in motion four consecutive years of full funding of Kansas public schools. The justices retained authority over the latest school finance case to dissuade the Legislative from backing out of funding commitments.

Nothing is more important than our kids, and we need to put kids and parents first,” Schmidt said. “We must constitutionally fund our schools. But fully funding schools doesn’t work if you lock the students out of them.”

Kelly has said in several campaign events she would not apologize for protecting lives of Kansas children during a pandemic linked to the death of 9,555 people in Kansas, more than 1 million in the United States and at least 6.5 million worldwide. She made the schools decision when the state had no COVID-19 test, vaccine or protective equipment.

Schmidt campaign spokesman C.J. Grover said if elected Nov. 8 that Schmidt would submit to the 2023 Legislature a budget complying with state Supreme Court precedent on K-12 school funding, including a controversial inflation adjustment that would increase state aid to districts.

Grover said the commercial featuring Ellis and her children began airing Wednesday and would be part of Schmidt’s media campaign through duration of the race.

Lawrence school board president Shannon Kimball said she had represented GOP governor candidate Derek Schmidt's interests for more than a decade but couldn't understand his criticism of Gov. Laura Kelly's advocacy of K-12 public education. (Tim Carpenter/Kansas Reflector)
Lawrence school board president Shannon Kimball said she had represented GOP gubernatorial candidate Derek Schmidt’s interests for more than a decade in Lawrence, but couldn’t understand his criticism of Gov. Laura Kelly’s advocacy of K-12 public education. (Tim Carpenter/Kansas Reflector)

Education governor?

Sherri Schwanz, a Lansing music teacher and president of Kansas National Education Association, said Schmidt would try to turn back the clock on state funding of public education to the Brownback administration’s quagmire of four-day school weeks, large class sizes and cuts to at-risk student programs.

“Governor Laura Kelly is the education governor,” Schwanz said. “For her opponent to attempt to lay claim to that title is laughable. A more accurate title for Derek Schmidt to claim would be Brownback’s defender in chief.”

Judith Deedy, executive director of Game on for Kansas Schools, said the advocacy organization was started more than a decade ago in response to cuts to public education touted by Brownback. She said opportunities for Kansas children to reach their potential were limited amid a state revenue crisis triggered by Brownback’s aggressive state income tax reductions.

“Brownback’s tax experiment stole money from our schools,” she said. “The administration proposed a clearly unconstitutional block grant scheme. Derek Schmidt at that time called the plan bold and promised to defend it.”

Kimball, who leads the Lawrence school board, said part of her role on the elected board was to serve her constituents in Lawrence, including Schmidt.

“I have not once in the 12 years I have been on my board gotten an email from him or anyone in his family, asking me questions about what’s going on in our local public schools, asking me to advocate for any particular thing that might not be going well. I heard no complaints. So, I’m not really sure where this narrative comes from,” Kimball said.

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Tim Carpenter
Tim Carpenter

Tim Carpenter has reported on Kansas for 35 years. He covered the Capitol for 16 years at the Topeka Capital-Journal and previously worked for the Lawrence Journal-World and United Press International. He has been recognized for investigative reporting on Kansas government and politics. He won the Kansas Press Association's Victor Murdock Award six times. The William Allen White Foundation honored him four times with its Burton Marvin News Enterprise Award. The Kansas City Press Club twice presented him its Journalist of the Year Award and more recently its Lifetime Achievement Award. He earned an agriculture degree at Kansas State University and grew up on a small dairy and beef cattle farm in Missouri. He is an amateur woodworker and drives Studebaker cars.