For Kris Kobach, the premise is simple.
The secretary of state believes 75 percent of all public education spending, including local bond projects, should be spent on classroom instruction, and he is promising to support legislation to make it a requirement if he becomes governor.
He pleads his case on Twitter, where he posted a picture of the Shawnee Mission School District headquarters, paid for with money from a $223 million bond project Johnson County voters approved in 2015.
“Classrooms are where our children learn, and that should be where our school funds go,” Kobach said. “Classrooms are my priority. ‘Crystal Palaces’ to house bureaucrats, designer atriums and exclusive staff-only fitness centers and aerobics studios are not my priority.”
As Kobach wails about the “Taj Mahals” built by school districts, his critics chalk it up to misleading campaign rhetoric. Depending on how you look at it, schools already spend more than 75 percent in the classroom or, if you consider local and federal money, would find it nearly impossible to meet Kobach’s target.
Those familiar with the complicated realm of school finance wonder why a governor would be better suited than local school boards to know where funding is best used on a district-by-district basis.
The battleground over education dollars — amplified this past week by the state’s high court ruling on the Legislature’s latest attempt to provide adequate funding — has become an important factor in the governor’s race, where Kobach and Gov. Jeff Colyer are leading contenders for the GOP nomination.
“Kris Kobach is the anti-education candidate in this race,” said Kendall Marr, a spokesman for Colyer. “He sees education as a burden, whereas Gov. Colyer sees education as an investment worth making in our children.”
Mark Tallman, spokesman for Kansas Association of School Boards, and Dale Dennis, deputy commissioner for the Kansas Department of Education, have heard this kind of talk before.
Tallman said rhetoric about the money spent in classrooms surfaced more than a decade ago, as the previous school funding lawsuit was settled. Lawmakers eventually passed a measure stating the goal should be 65 percent.
But here’s where it gets confusing. Districts spend $3.2 billion annually on classroom instruction, Tallman said. Based on the roughly $4 billion they receive in state aid each year, schools already spend 80 percent in the classroom.
When you look at all the money being spent on the public education system, as Kobach does, the percentage for classroom instruction is only 53 percent. Eliminate bond debt, and the figure only rises to 60 percent.
Another dilemma, as Dennis pointed out, is what definitions you use. Should things like student counseling and teacher instruction factor into the equation?
“Our view has always been ‘dollars to the classroom’ is pretty meaningless,” Tallman said. “It’s narrow. And all these other things help students learn.”
Last week, the Kansas Supreme Court endorsed new legislation that raises base state aid and targets funding for at-risk students, early childhood education, special education and mentor teachers. Overall, the plan phases in $522 million in new money over five years, and justices ordered lawmakers to add inflation adjustments to make the plan viable.
In Topeka, the initial funding boost will provide full-time counselors at all middle schools, said Unified School District 501 superintendent Tiffany Anderson. The district also plans to add teachers and expand academic and mental health services to students.
“When dollars are put towards increasing the number of counselors or special education staff, we know it has a direct impact on student learning,” said Misty Kruger, a spokeswoman for the district. “Students who need additional supports can receive those with little disruption to their classroom learning while at the same time allowing instruction to continue for all students.”
Tallman said Kobach’s 75 percent mandate doesn’t seem possible or wise. Even if districts eliminate all administrators, they would still need to cut into things like food and busing to make it work, he said. They would also need to stop building new facilities, but he noted you can’t put money into the classroom if you don’t have one.
More important, Tallman said, is who decides how education money is spent — the governor, Legislature or local school board? He and Dennis support local control.
“Operating money for school districts is a matter for the local boards of education,” Dennis said. “Their decision.”
‘Out of whack’
If you ask taxpayers, Kobach said, most would think the majority of money already is spent in the classroom.
But when he looks at charts that reveal just 53 percent goes toward instruction, they demonstrate “how out of whack the spending is,” he said.
Kobach declined to identify line items that could be eliminated, but he said there are a lot of ways schools can save.
“I’ve talked with many teachers who have many types of complaints about where money is being spent,” he said.
Teachers have told him the instruction coaches who give them tips aren’t really helping, for instance. He’s willing to gamble voters will support his philosophy for how much of each tax dollar should be used in classrooms.
“I believe 75 cents is a reasonable starting point,” he said.
Another Republican in the governor’s race, former state Sen. Jim Barnett, said he has visited more school districts than Kobach and has never seen a Taj Mahal.
In some districts, Barnett said, superintendents drive buses and have offices in double-wide trailers.
“His specific reference to Shawnee Mission school district — we have visited the site — represents a facility that includes special training center for technical and career education,” Barnett said. “That is exactly where we should focus when we have over 50,000 open jobs.”
Insurance Commissioner Ken Selzer, also a Republican, said if the state demanded more accountability, concerns raised by Kobach “would more readily take care of themselves.”
Marr said Colyer is working with local school boards “to ensure we get more dollars directly into the classroom.”
The Democratic candidates for governor — Sen. Laura Kelly, former Wichita mayor Carl Brewer, physician Arden Andersen and former agriculture secretary Josh Svaty — dismissed Kobach’s campaign talk as less than forthcoming or worse.
Kelly said it was reasonable to require accountability. But Kobach is “attempting to mislead Kansans once again,” she said, promising to work with lawmakers and educators to fully fund schools and ensure transparency.
Svaty said it was a matter of local control. School boards are the ones who know what is going on the district and are best suited to decide where resources should be applied, he said.
Brewer said the 75 percent mandate is a vague and empty promise.
“Kobach doesn’t seem to grasp the principle of separation of powers imparted and inherent in the constitutions of our state and nation,” Brewer said.
Andersen said Kobach’s comments “reflect a complete lack of understanding.” Many of the non-classroom expenses, he said, are “fixed costs,” such as insurance and keeping the lights on.
An independent candidate, Greg Orman, said it is more important to let teachers know they are valued.
“Improving teacher pay, reducing classroom sizes and giving teachers more resources is vital to accomplishing that,” Orman said. “We need to trust local voters and local school boards, however, to evaluate the needs of their students and make prudent spending decisions.”