TOPEKA — More Kansas high school students would be able to attend college-level technical courses free of charge under a proposal by Gov. Sam Brownback.

The proposal comes after under-funding of an existing program in recent years.

Commonly called Senate Bill 155, the program allows high school students to qualify for state-paid tuition in technical courses offered by Kansas technical and community colleges and obtain certificates. But over the past two years, costs have outpaced funding, according to the Kansas Board of Regents.

Kansas has a need for more skilled technical workers, including in aviation. Brownback's overall budget proposal has drawn scorn from Republicans and some Democrats who question how he plans to pay for new spending, but Wichita manufacturers and the business community have praised its increased funding for career and technical education.

Civic and business leaders have said Kansas needs to attract more skilled workers to remain competitive with other states. Nearly 6,000 Kansas jobs requiring vocational training were vacant in 2017, according to state data.

Sheree Utash, president of Wichita Area Technical College, said the funding increase allows the college "key funding to fill the talent pipeline with a skilled workforce in industries such as aviation, manufacturing, IT and healthcare."

Last year, Senate Bill 155 cost $24.5 million. But the Legislature and governor only passed $20.8 million in funding. Right now, colleges pick up the unfunded costs.

The current funding level is also lower than in 2015, the program's high watermark in terms of funding. That year, the Legislature approved nearly $25 million.

At the same time, program participation is growing. More than 10,600 students participated last year, up from 6,101 during the 2013-2014 school year.

Participation in the program so far hasn't been limited, said Matt Keith, a spokesman for the Kansas Board of Regents. But given the current deficit in funding, "many institutions are reviewing the programs and classes they are planning to offer in the future."

Brownback's budget proposal includes $15.6 million in new funding over two years. The increase should be enough to cover the full cost of the program.

Lt. Gov. Jeff Colyer told The Eagle that the state has about 32,000 open jobs and that the challenge is to upgrade the skill sets of Kansas students.

"When I'm talking to businesses around the state, the skills gap in the work force is the number one economic development issue," Colyer said.


Training a challenge

Workforce training and development is critical to keeping and adding high-paying aviation jobs in Kansas and Wichita, said Gary Plummer, president and CEO of the Wichita Regional Chamber of Commerce.

"It's the biggest challenge facing our airplane manufacturers, and addressing these issues are top priorities for the Chamber," Plummer said in a statement.

Sen. Lynn Rogers, a Wichita Democrat who was on the Wichita school board until recently, said he wondered whether colleges would begin to bow out of the Senate Bill 155 program over rising costs. He praised the increased funding.

"That was the very best part of Sam Brownback's education plan because not only did it provide money for our students to get those certificates, they were able to get higher-paying jobs, to go to higher-ed schools and it also helped the community colleges," Rogers said.

Senate President Susan Wagle, R-Wichita, expressed concern with the overall budget proposal — which includes a $600 million boost for education over five years she opposes — even as she emphasized the importance of aviation. The budget will not balance in the coming years, Wagle contends.

"Our overrall concern is the governor presented us with a wonderful wish list Tuesday night," Wagle said, before adding: "I have the budget runs here on my desk. It tanks in 2020."

Sen. Melissa Rooker, R-Fairway, described the career and technical education proposal as a restoration, given that Senate Bill 155's current funding is lower than it has been in the past. But she raised concerns over how to pay for the spending Brownback has proposed in the budget as a whole.

"The fact that the budget came out with promises that the Trump economy will cover all is really problematic," Rooker said.

The budget also adds funding for the National Institute for Aviation Research and the National Center for Aviation Training, both based in Wichita. Combined, the two centers would receive an additional $7 million.

According to the budget proposal, the funds for NIAR would go toward developing skills among workers to better use new manufacturing infrastructure. NCAT funding would boost training programs.

The NIAR operates more than a dozen labs with focuses ranging from mechanics to a wind tunnel. NCAT trains workers in several aviation-related areas, including aerospace quality control, avionics technology and non-destructive testing, among others.


Spirit donated to Colyer

The boost for NIAR and NCAT comes on the heels of a December announcement by Spirit AeroSystems that the company plans to add 1,000 jobs in Kansas, along with $1 billion in capital investments.

"This is in part to help with some major key initiatives in Wichita area and south-central area of Kansas," State Budget Director Shawn Sullivan told lawmakers during a briefing. "There were 1,000 jobs added through a Spirit announcement several weeks ago. They were very concerned as is the Regents about being able to find and train those 1,000 workers as well as expansion from subcontractors and the ripple effect that has."

Spirit and Textron Aviation effusively praised the budget following its release Wednesday.

Spirit CEO Tom Gentile in a statement called the funding increases "key components" in the company's ability to stay on the cutting edge of technology and "fill the talent pipeline with thousands of skilled workers the aviation industry needs today and for the forseeable future.

Gentile said Brownback and Colyer had listened to the company's concerns and responded "quickly and decisively."

Gentile donated $2,000 to Colyer's campaign, finance records show. Spirit and the company's political action committee both donated $2,000 as well.

All three donations came on Dec. 6 — the same day that Spirit made its jobs announcement, with Colyer on hand.

Sullivan told lawmakers that 13 groups made the aviation-related funding request in a letter. He said he would provide the letter to lawmakers.

Sen. Carolyn McGinn, a Sedgwick Republican who chairs the Senate Ways and Means Committee, said she had not received the letter as of early Thursday afternoon. She added she had not been approached about potential funding increases for the aviation centers ahead of Brownback's budget.

"I think they're all important, but generally the way the process works: generally, those folks that sit on those boards and serve on those boards, they come and talk to their legislators or their whole delegation and then it gets started that way," McGinn said.

"So I'm very surprised to see that just pop up in the budget without having conversations with legislators."