Schmidt’s campaign pivots to speak out against governor’s record on Kansas public education

TOPEKA — Republican gubernatorial candidate Derek Schmidt on Monday dismissed Democratic Gov. Laura Kelly’s position as a champion of public education amid evidence of declining student achievement and growing mental health issues in following the COVID-19 pandemic.

Schmidt, who is the state’s attorney general, also blamed Kelly for the state’s teacher shortage.

He said the Kansans were irritated. Kelly’s response to the March 2020 national health crisis was to make Kansas the first state to close school buildings and move to online learning.

“Everywhere I go, parents in Kansas are expressing immense sadness, frustration, concern, and sometimes anger at the ongoing harm to our children from Governor Kelly’s school closures and mandates,” Schmidt said.

Kelly’s re-election campaign pointed out that his administration had restored financial stability to Kansas’ K-12 schools after years of underfunding endorsed by one of his predecessors, GOP Gov. Sam Brownback. The state’s public education system was fully funded for four years in accordance with the Kansas Supreme Court’s 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 children get the world-class education they deserve,” Kelly said. “The next generation is our future labor pool and our schools are essential to meet the needs of our growing economy.”

Kelly said she was endorsed Monday by Education First Shawnee Mission, a parent advocacy group associated with the Shawnee Mission School District in Johnson County.

Additionally, the Governor said that since taking office, she has worked to convert 26 community mental health centers into certified clinics capable of addressing mental health and addictions crises through integrated physical and behavioral care. She expanded the state’s ability to provide mental health care to Kansans closer to home by bringing new facilities online for young people. She also invested $33 million to expand mental health intervention programs from nine districts to 67 districts and serve 1,708 students to nearly 5,000 students annually.

By contrast, Schmidt said Kelly should not be called the state’s “education governor.”

“She promised to be a champion for students and, in particular, to improve mental health outcomes. She broke those promises and her brutal response to the pandemic has done more damage to our children than any other governor in Kansas history,” Schmidt said.

Schmidt said other states are allowing students to continue their education in person during the pandemic. In Kansas, COVID-19 has been linked to the death of 8,935 people and the infection of more than 835,000.

He pointed to reports from the Kansas State Department of Education indicating that students’ math skills declined by 1.5 percentage points from 2019 to 2021, while the proportion of students at the attainment level the lowest in math rose 6.1 percentage points. In terms of reading ability, there was a 0.7 percentage point drop among those at the highest skill level and a 0.9 percentage point increase in the lowest level portion.

The state’s ranking on a school mental health scorecard was 33rd in the nation, Schmidt said, up from eighth in 2015. In 2021, the Kansas Communities that Care survey reported that 31 % of Kansas teens had considered suicide.

Meanwhile, the state Department of Education reported in July that 4% of teaching positions statewide were unfilled. This would equate to a shortage of 1,400 educators.

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