As Kansas lawmakers seek solutions to labor shortages, state funding for education remains a politically sensitive issue as politicians recognize the need for schools to create a workforce.
Blake Flanders, president of the Kansas Board of Regents, told the Special Committee on Workforce Development Monday that the talent pipeline faces challenges.
“From what I’ve heard from employers, I’m feeling a little desperate more than ever,” said Flanders. “Employers used to say, ‘We’re not getting exactly the talent that we need, and we want those skills to be developed.’ And now sometimes I hear more, ‘We just need someone to come to work; we need someone to show up.'”
Democratic Gov. Laura Kelly promoted workforce development and higher education at the groundbreaking ceremony for Panasonic’s electric vehicle battery plant, funded in part by government incentives. Likewise, recognizing the need for education and people development, Panasonic executives wrote a donation to De Soto schools.
“We’ve worked hard to help Panasonic and other companies build their futures here in Kansas,” said Kelly. “Our historic investments in K-12 and higher education have supported a talent pipeline and outstanding workforce.”
But Republican lawmakers question whether increased funding has improved results.
More:Kansas officials say the state needs Panasonic workers – but hope this tool could boost the workforce
Enrollment in colleges in Kansas is declining
State data shows enrollment has declined over the past decade, with an acceleration during the pandemic. Community colleges and Washburn University were hit much harder than public universities. Meanwhile, the universities of applied sciences recorded growth.
“We’re looking at ways to increase our enrollments,” said Flanders. “It’s good for institutions and it’s good for Kansas. But that’s part of the equation. You also have to keep and graduate these students. So it’s not just about recruiting the students, you have to make sure they’re successful.”
College enrollment rates have also recently fallen in state public and private institutions and in non-state schools. Despite recent declines, private state schools are up slightly from 2015.
Flanders said the pandemic has accelerated existing long-term trends of declining student numbers.
Sen. Virgil Peck, R-Havana, suggested that political ideology may be to blame for public schools losing students while private schools experienced a modest setback.
“I wonder if it might not have something to do with the fact that Kansans are still fundamentally conservative-minded and our state private schools don’t teach our students some of the liberal, bright things that our public universities teach. ‘ Pick said.
“That could also explain the increase in the number of colleges,” said Rep. Sean Tarwater, R-Stilwell.
Flanders declined to answer.
Sen. Renee Erickson, R-Wichita, noted that Wichita State University has bucked the trend and increased its enrollment while recruiting foreign students in the I-35 corridor. Flanders praised the university’s partnership with industry, which supported students in finding internships and jobs.
“So WSU is already partnering and offering internships, increasing enrollment, and recruiting students out of state,” Erickson said. “So my question is, why aren’t the other universities paying attention and saying, ‘Gosh, we don’t have to wait for legislation, we can already do that.'”
“They are,” Flanders replied. “Wichita State started earlier, but the other institutions are doing it, too.”
He pointed to Scorpion Biological Services settling in Manhattan, where workers from Kansas State University and Manhattan Area Technical College are expected to be hired. The University of Kansas has been involved in discussions about the Panasonic facility near Lawrence. In the state of Wichita, aviation programs place students in airplane conversion jobs.
Flanders said former Wichita State President John Bardo developed the I-35 corridor strategy nine years ago.
“Now this strategy is starting to pay off,” said Flanders.
More:A $50 million hangar investment could attract $3 billion for modification work on the Boeing 777 in Kansas, the state of Wichita says
Kansas funding blamed for lower college enrollment
“In terms of recruitment, we will not be able to feed our industry solely with the talent that we have in this state,” said Flanders. “We don’t have enough people.”
Rep. Stephanie Clayton, D-Overland Park, lamented declining enrollment and an apparent lack of recruiting of Kansas children over out-of-state students.
Flanders blamed the level of government funding.
“Kansas lags behind the region as a whole in terms of state aid levels,” Flanders said.
He said legal means helped.
“Last year you invested in needs-based aid and asked us – which I think is appropriate – to top it up with endowment money,” Flanders said. “We demand that again.”
Tarwater, who is the committee chair, was not convinced.
“Why does the state need to put more money on the table before you dive into your foundation aid?” he asked. “Why can’t you do that without our asking?”
“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 lawmakers debate student financial aid, Kansas is one of the states that has signed a federal lawsuit, through outgoing Republican Attorney General Derek Schmidt, to block student debt relief from Democratic President Joe Biden’s administration.
The White House estimates that more than 360,000 Kansans will 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 you need to know about how to apply
Attorney General-elect Kris Kobach, a Republican, vowed during the campaign to continue the legal battle.
“It is unconstitutional for the US President to issue $500 billion in student loan forgiveness by executive order,” Kobach said during a debate. “Our constitution states very clearly that only the legislature has the authority to spend money and tax citizens.”
Kobach also said the Biden policy was unfair.
“Maybe you decided not to go to the most expensive college and chose a cheaper one, or maybe you didn’t go to college, or you’re working your way through college — and you’re now being saddled with paying the bills on someone else’s loans “It’s terribly unfair, especially when we’re talking about people who didn’t go to college at all because they couldn’t afford it.”
Student performance benchmarks in Kansas are falling
Erickson, the Wichita senator, polled Flanders on college readiness and remedial education — which Flanders says benchmarks are declining — noting that ACT scores have fallen given increased K-12 funding. Flanders referred K-12 funding issues to the Kansas State Department of Education.
Neither the Department of Education nor the Kansas State Board of Education were listed among the conference attendees at Monday’s meeting or at an earlier meeting in September.
“If ACT scores go down, it proves that the extra money isn’t getting the benefit,” said Peck, the Havana Senator.
More:Kansas high school seniors’ ACT scores remain flat while the national average falls to an all-time low
Rep. Pam Curtis, D-Kansas City, suggested that past underfunding of the education system was still to blame.
“We still have kids who are now graduating high school and going to K-12 school when we didn’t fully fund their education,” she said.
Flanders acknowledged that “early childhood interventions are incredibly effective in the long term, we have evidence of that”.
Dave Trabert of the Kansas Policy Institute, whose book on school choice he and the committee chair promoted during the hearing, was critical of public education management. Trabert claims that there is a “student achievement crisis” and that one barrier to improving public education is “a false sense of high achievement.”
“Put simply, our system is to graduate kids, to give kids diplomas, knowing that a large number of them are below grade in reading and math,” he said. “One of the big challenges for the workforce is that we’re putting kids out there who aren’t really ready to go into the workforce or do any other higher education.”
Trabert said the government building needs assessment had been “quite obviously ignored by the public education system.”
Sen. Brenda Dietrich, R-Topeka, said Trabert “drives a stake through my heart.” Dietrich is the retired Superintendent of Auburn-Washburn $437.
“I think you’re going to see some improvements there,” Dietrich said of the building needs analysis after spending time working on it last year “to make sure we had all the pieces in a workable format.”
“They really worked a lot on it. Unfortunately, the school districts pretty much ignored it,” Trabert said.
“Well, I don’t think in my area because I’ve actually been in contact with them and seen them use them, so I feel good about my area,” Dietrich said.
Tarwater said that in discussions with industry representatives and college professors, “a lot of private schools are also struggling.”
“In general, we need to look at how we raise our kids,” he said, “and we need some responsibility and some discipline.”