ATCHISON — Gov. Jeff Colyer took the brunt of direct attacks launched by rival Republican candidates Friday night in a debate that centered on passage by the Legislature of a $500 million increase in state aid to public schools and failure to adopt a constitutional amendment to zap power of the Kansas Supreme Court.
Secretary of State Kris Kobach and Insurance Commissioner Ken Selzer took turns blasting Colyer on the financing and oversight of public education before expanding their critique to the governor's role in privatization of Medicaid, concealed firearms, highway projects and the general tax burden on Kansans.
The three candidates reached common ground while denouncing the Supreme Court's repetitive findings of constitutional violation in the state's K-12 funding system. Altering the state's constitution, the GOP candidates agreed, would take the steam out of the court and properly place the bulk of those education financial decisions with the legislative and executive branches of state government.
"My goal is to be the last governor under this litigation," said Colyer, who said he would sign the education bill into law. "Ten governors. Five Republicans, five Democrats. All of us, all of us, have been under ... school finance litigation for the last 50 years."
"I am proudly going to sign a bill that puts more money into the classroom and actually insures we have outcomes," Colyer said. "Our kids need to see their future here in the state of Kansas."
Kobach said the bill sitting on Colyer's desk wasn't worthy of inclusion in state statute because it endorsed the court's recklessness and would never satisfy plaintiffs that had filed lawsuit after lawsuit to demand more state spending on schools. He said Colyer's attempt to find political consensus on school finance among legislators, lobbyists and others was folly.
"That doesn't change the mindset of the plaintiffs," Kobach said. "If you pay a king's ransom — which over $500 million bucks is a king's ransom — you are not going to solve the problem. The next day, another lawsuit will be filed, demanding another king's ransom. You can't live in a fantasy world where if we just keep paying. We just keep coughing up the money. The plaintiffs will never say there's enough."
Kobach said Colyer should have used power of the governor's office to help Senate President Susan Wagle, R-Wichita, advance a constitutional amendment.
During the ongoing 2018 legislative session, Colyer put his fingerprints on education policy by endorsing the bill passed Sunday that would direct more than $500 million in state tax dollars over the next five years to school districts. The governor pledged during the debate to sign the bill, which he contends won't require a tax increase to fully implement.
Colyer countered the harsh tone of his counterparts by promoting positive work being done in Kansas schools. He said the state needs to respect teachers and make the investment necessary to meet student achievement goals. The keys to prosperity, he said, are keeping taxes low and establishing the country's best-educated workforce.
"We can grow our economy, but we need to make sure we have the right skills. We have great kids. They do want to achieve. All of us know that we cannot accept the soft bigotry of low expectations. That's what this is about," the governor said.
Selzer said he was disappointed that Colyer hadn't demanded a higher level of accountability from school districts for the billions of dollars invested in children.
"We need a governor that's going to champion accountability," he said.
Colyer said the state had an obligation to expand the skills of students across the educational system. He said some students were being left behind academically, a reality the state cannot afford.
"One out of eight kids don't graduate from high school. That's got to stop," the governor said.
Selzer said the state's focus on third-graders under the administration of Gov. Sam Brownback was improper. The work of instilling appreciation for education must come much earlier in a child's life, he said. Too many students come to school ill-equipped to learn, he said.
If elected governor, Kobach said he would use his authority to keep school districts from building fancy buildings and bloating administrators' salaries. He'd insist 75 percent of every dollar make it to the classroom in the form of teacher salaries, computers and books. Each district with big savings accounts — statewide about $920 million is in reserve — would have to spend down that cash, he said.
Kobach said he would implement a system that gave each school building in the state a letter grade based on standardized text scores of students. If the school received an "A" by raising scores, he said, every employee in that school would get a raise. If the school earned an "F," all children in the building would be given a voucher to pay for attendance at any private or public school in Kansas, he said.
The Kansas GOP-sanctioned event served as the first opportunity for Colyer and Kobach to go toe-to-toe. Colyer fell ill and didn't participate in a February debate in Wichita, an event that included businessmen Wink Hartman and Mark Hutton, who have since dropped out of the race.
Several Republican gubernatorial candidates, including former Sen. Jim Barnett, declined to sign and denounced the pact as an attempt to stifle alternative voices. The agreement limits what questions can be asked and who can ask those questions at debates, he said.
He said the arrangement also prohibited participation of candidates that didn't vote in the 2014 primary election.
"Instead of a free and open debate," Barnett said, "the party has put their thumb on the scales to rig the debate for a certain few."