Kansas educators recall pain of Brownback era, urge support for Gov. Laura Kelly

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TOPEKA — Charrica Osborne remembers spending up to $800 of her own money every year on classroom supplies for her students at a Wichita public school as funding eroded under former Gov. Sam Brownback.

Osborne had three children in school and was still paying off student loans for her master’s degree. Her husband at one point told her not to spend one more dollar out of her own pocket.

The allotment for classroom supplies in her district was as little as $100 per teacher, Osborne said. There was nobody she could turn to for help.

“Things were drying up, and we just had to deplete our own resources, and it became very difficult,” Osborne said. “I found myself hearing at times literally people saying, ‘We know that you’re doing it for the love of the children.’ And it’s like, yeah, but don’t use that against me.”

Osborne shared her experience during a recent roundtable discussion in Topeka with public school teachers, union officials, board members, parents and legislators. The event was organized by Democrats in support of Gov. Laura Kelly, who is running for reelection against Republican Attorney General Derek Schmidt and independent conservative state Sen. Dennis Pyle.

Democrats argue that Schmidt was complicit in Brownback’s so-called tax experiment and its damaging impact on government functions, including public education. As the attorney general, Schmidt was responsible for defending plans that violated the state constitution’s requirement for adequate and equitable spending on public schools.

The illegal disinvestment in public schools, including a novel “block grants” system, kept the state embroiled in a decade-long court battle that was resolved after Kelly took office in 2019. The bipartisan solution passed by the Legislature raised spending levels annually through the just-begun school year, and includes an automatic increase in future years based on the Consumer Price Index.

Educators fear that if Schmidt were to become governor, he would sign any attempt by the Legislature to reduce funding or eliminate the annual inflation adjustment. They also raised concerns that Schmidt would sign bills that redirect money from public to private schools, subject teachers to unnecessary harassment, and discriminate against transgender students.

Keith Tatum appears Aug. 23, 2022, at an education roundtable discussion at the Topeka and Shawnee County Public Library. (Sherman Smith/Kansas Reflector)
Keith Tatum, a school board member in Topeka and chairman of Shawnee County Democrats, says laws that harm public schools would already be on the books if not for Gov. Laura Kelly’s veto. (Sherman Smith/Kansas Reflector)

If it weren’t for Kelly’s vetoes, those laws would already be on the books, said Keith Tatum, who serves on the Topeka school board and as chairman of the Shawnee County Democrats.

“These are harsh, mean, cruel pieces of legislation that are designed to cement power and take the worldview of those in power and transpose them over everybody else in the community,” Tatum said.

C.J. Grover, a spokesman for Schmidt, said the Republican supports “keeping Kansas schools constitutionally funded.” He said Schmidt was obligated to defend past laws because of the duties of his office, and that he never advocated for the block grant approach.

“Kansas schools have been constitutionally funded largely since before Laura Kelly took office and Derek will ensure they remain that way after she leaves,” Grover said. “But Kansas kids deserve better than her failed policies, which have resulted in more kids falling behind academically, more kids contemplating suicide, and a record number of students and teachers fleeing the public school system.”

Democrats attribute those problems to the pandemic and the hostility directed at teachers by policymakers.

Osborne, who stopped teaching in May after 25 years in the profession, said schools are still trying to mitigate the “devastation” of the Brownback years.

“We’re still trying to correct it, and it’s just mindboggling what could happen,” Osborne said. “We can’t return to that because we aren’t yet out of the shadow.”

Shannon Kimball appears Aug. 23, 2022, at an education roundtable discussion at the Topeka and Shawnee County Public Library. (Sherman Smith/Kansas Reflector)
Shannon Kimball, president of the Lawrence school board, says the district had to take care of more kids with more challenges at the same time funding was cut for public schools. (Sherman Smith/Kansas Reflector)

Shannon Kimball, president of the Lawrence school board, said her child who is graduating this year has gone through his entire K-12 experience in a chronically underfunded system, which “impacted every part of his experience.” This is the first school year in 15 years in which funding has been fully restored.

The state broke its promise to fully fund schools before Brownback took office, initially in response to the Great Recession in 2008. That led schools to file a lawsuit in 2010, the year Brownback was elected. Five years later, after the state lost a round of legal challenges, the Legislature replaced a formula that dated to 1992 with a two-year block grant to school districts. The Kansas Supreme Court determined the grants, which lowered funding and eliminated extra aid for students in poverty, were unconstitutional. Schmidt, who was elected attorney general in 2010, defended the state throughout the legal battle.

“We had more students coming into our building with poverty because the tax experiment decimated the social safety net for our families,” Kimball said. “So more kids with more needs coming into the building, and we had less staff and less resources to dedicate to helping make sure we were meeting our mission of educating those kids and preparing them to graduate and be ready to be productive citizens.”

Michelle Taylor appears Aug. 23, 2022, at an education roundtable discussion at the Topeka and Shawnee County Public Library. (Sherman Smith/Kansas Reflector)
Michelle Taylor, who teaches in Silver Lake, said it is difficult to be an educator when you are told you aren’t worth the investment. (Sherman Smith/Kansas Reflector)

Michelle Taylor, a teacher from the Silver Lake, said her small district is property poor and relies on more equalization aid in the state funding formula than any other district except Galena. Block grants forced the district to eliminate staff positions and forgo basic maintenance, Taylor said. The schools couldn’t even afford to wax their floors for three years.

The impact was “gut-wrenching,” Taylor said. When teachers are told they aren’t worth the investment, she said, “it makes being in education hard.”

“If this election doesn’t go right in November, how are we going to structure our pay scale so that we can continue to pay our teachers, when we inevitably get a block grant back?” Taylor said. “And are we going to be able to give people raises ever again?”

Lawmakers in 2017 reverted to the older school finance formula and began adding money back into it. In 2018, they added more than $500 million in annual spending, to be phased in over the next five years. The Kansas Supreme Court approved the plan in 2019 — after lawmakers added money to account for inflation during the five-year rollout, as well as the the automatic adjustment based on the Consumer Price Index.

Former Senate Minority Leader Anthony Hensley, a Topeka Democrat who taught in public schools for 43 years and served in the Legislature for 44 years, said Republicans “basically agreed to the CPI kicking and screaming.” They didn’t want to put it into law, Hensley said, but it was “absolutely essential” for the future of public education.

“They’re going to try to go after the CPI this next session, and we need to have Laura Kelly there as governor to veto it when they try to take away the CPI,” Hensley said.

Pyle, the state senator who is running for governor as an independent, said taxpayers deserve better academic results than they are getting for their investment in public schools.

He questioned whether spending more money, as required by the CPI adjustment, would provide a solution.

“The truth is that no amount of money will make the public school bureaucracy happy,” Pyle said. “We all know the real result of greater funding is higher taxes, the result of which is the redistribution of wealth.”

Kansas Reflector is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Kansas Reflector maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Sherman Smith for questions: info@kansasreflector.com. Follow Kansas Reflector on Facebook and Twitter.

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