Betsy DeVos, a school choice advocate and President-elect Donald Trump's nominee for secretary of education, faced tough questions during her confirmation hearing Tuesday from many senators on the Health Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, but not from Kansas Sen. Pat Roberts.
Instead, Roberts steered entirely clear of all K-12 education issues during his five minutes of questioning and focused solely on federal regulations affecting higher education.
Recalling a meeting he'd held recently with higher education officials in Kansas, including, apparently, Johnson County Community College, Roberts held up a chart that he'd evidently printed off of a computer. Roberts remarked on the large volume of federal programs and regulations that officials at Kansas public colleges and universities told him they deal with.
"These are 34 topics or areas of federal regulation, some of them very, very, very important," Roberts said. "But the collective judgment was that they were so intrusive, so expensive, so time-consuming that they had to get an office of compliance just to look at the federal regulations, and then they assign bad-news bearers to go tell all the various departments that make up the Johnson County Community College."
Roberts went on to say that the sheer volume of regulations indicated to him "that we need to work together to eliminate many of these burdensome regulations that hinder the institutions of higher education's main goal, to educate our students effectively and efficiently."
Roberts wasn't specific about which regulations he wants to repeal. Among the federal regulations that apply to higher education institutions are Title IX regulations that ban gender-based discrimination, along with a host of financial regulations relating to federally funded research and federal student financial aid programs.
While Roberts was almost alone in focusing attention on the Department of Education's role in higher education, most of the other senators focused their questions on K-12 education, and in particular DeVos' support for charter schools and voucher programs that use public funds to pay tuition costs at private and parochial schools.
Meanwhile, Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., tried to get DeVos to identify how much money she and her husband, billionaire Dick DeVos, who is heir to the Amway fortune, had contributed to political candidates over the years, a figure he estimated at about $200 million.
"That's possible," DeVos said.
Some of the sharpest questioning came from Sen. Al Franken, D-Minn., who challenged DeVos' knowledge and familiarity with fundamental issues confronting K-12 education, such as the question of whether the National Assessment of Educational Progress, or NAEP exams, should focus on measuring "proficiency" or student "growth."
"This is a subject that has been debated in the education community for years," Franken said. "I've advocated growth, as the chairman and every member of this committee knows, because with proficiency, teachers ignore the kids at the top who are not going to fall below proficiency, and they ignore the kid at the bottom who, no matter what they do, will never get to proficiency. So I've been an advocate for growth, but it surprises me that you don't know this issue."
Roberts, however, pointed out that the committee plans to work on reauthorizing the Higher Education Act in the coming months and that "regulations are one of the key areas this committee will focus on" during that process.
"Will you be a partner in addressing many of these time-consuming regulations?" Roberts asked.
"Yes, I can commit to you that if confirmed I will look forward to working with you and this committee on that act and on the regulations you've referred to, and wanting to help free our institutions of higher learning to the greatest extent possible, to do what they do best," DeVos replied.
Wednesday afternoon, Democrats in the Kansas Legislature issued a joint letter to Roberts and Sen. Jerry Moran of Kansas, criticizing her stance on charter schools and urging the senators to reject DeVos’ nomination. “She’s never attended public schools, taught or administrated, nor were her children educated in public schools,” the letter stated. “She is unqualified for the position of Education Secretary and her confirmation will imperil our students – particularly those most vulnerable.”
TOPEKA — Kansas Senate Vice President Jeff King, R-Independence, announced Thursday that he will not seek re-election this year, saying in part that he has become disillusioned with statehouse politics.
"The recent veto session shows the harm of putting politics over good government," King said in a statement. "Last Friday, we witnessed dozens of Democrat and Republican legislators vote against fixing the very LLC loophole they have rallied against for years. They knew the importance of restoring tax fairness. They understood that we must close the gap to restore long-term budget health. But they knew that preserving the bad law would create a campaign issue that they could exploit against their opponents in the fall. Politics over policy."
King, 40, is an attorney who grew up in Independence. He earned a bachelor's degree in international relations and economy from Brown University, a master's in agricultural economics from Cambridge University and a law degree from Yale University.
He was appointed to the Senate seat in 2010 after then-Sen. Derek Schmidt was elected attorney general. He then ran unopposed for a full term in 2012 and was named vice president after having served only two years in office. He also chaired the Senate Judiciary Committee.
Although he frequently voted with conservatives, some of his positions moderated in recent years, particularly regarding Medicaid expansion, after a community hospital in Independence was forced to close last year. He was also part of an unsuccessful effort this year to scale back one of Gov. Sam Brownback's signature tax cuts that allows more than 330,000 farmers and business owners to pay no tax on their business income.
His announcement creates a vacancy in the heavily Republican 15th District, which includes portions of Montgomery, Neosho, Allen and Labette counties in southeast Kansas. Brownback carried the district with 58 percent of the vote in 2014.
So far, only one candidate has filed in the race, Democrat Chuck Schmidt, of Independence.
A new poll from the Docking Institute of Public Affairs at Fort Hays State University shows only 18 percent of Kansans are satisfied with Gov. Sam Brownback's performance in office, and most (61 percent) think his signature tax policies have either been a "failure" or a "tremendous failure."
The Fall 2015 "Kansas Speaks" survey also showed a large majority (61 percent) favor expanding Medicaid. Another 84 percent oppose requiring colleges and universities to allow firearms on campus, and 82 percent are skeptical that voter fraud is a significant problem in Kansas.
The survey of 638 Kansas adults was conducted Sept. 14 through Oct. 5, with a margin of error of 3.9 percent.
The survey asked respondents to indicate whether they were very satisfied, somewhat satisfied, neutral, somewhat dissatisfied or very dissatisfied with a list of elected officials. Overall, only 18 percent said they were either somewhat or very satisfied with Brownback.
That question is slightly different from the standard polling question, which asks people whether they "approve" or "disapprove" of a person's performance in office. It wasn't immediately clear how much impact that subtle difference in wording may have had on the results. One thing that was clear, though: Brownback's "satisfaction rating" among Kansans was 10 points lower than President Barack Obama's.
Like a similar poll conducted this spring, the fall poll portrays a much more moderate adult population than is reflected in the Legislature. That's likely due to the fact that the Fort Hays State poll surveys "adults," as opposed to "registered voters," or even "likely voters."
But the high level of dissatisfaction with Brownback and his policies may be important for Republican candidates running in the 2016 elections. They will likely have to ask themselves how closely they want to be identified with a governor who is personally unpopular, and who cannot run again himself because he is term limited.
Not surprisingly, the poll showed a wide partisan divide on most questions. But when it came to assessing Brownback, even among those who identified themselves as "strong Republicans," 45 percent said they were either somewhat or very dissatisfied with his performance. Only 9 percent said they were very satisfied.
Thirty-eight percent of "strong Republicans" said they believe his tax policies have failed to stimulate economic growth.
Democrats file to challenge conservative senators
More than a year out from the 2016 elections, Democrats are lining up a fair number of candidates to challenge conservative Republicans in the Kansas Senate.
The latest to file is Vicki Hiatt, a Johnson County Democrat who filed Friday to run in the 10th District against incumbent Republican Sen. Mary Pilcher-Cook. Hiatt is a retired special education teacher who ran unsuccessfully for the Kansas House in 2014 against incumbent Republican Charles Macheers.
Earlier, Wichita school board member Lynn Rogers filed to challenge Republican Sen. Michael O'Donnell, a conservative who came into office in 2012 as part of the Kansas Chamber-backed slate of candidates who ousted incumbent moderates and took control of the Senate.
O'Donnell defeated then-Republican Sen. Jean Schodorf, a moderate whom the Democrats had never seriously tried to challenge. As a result, when O'Donnell won the GOP primary, he didn't have much difficulty winning the general election too.
But the district itself leans Democratic. As the Wichita Eagle has noted, it overlaps with three Democratic House districts, and voters there supported Democrat Paul Davis by double digits over Brownback in the 2014 gubernatorial race.
Democrats also have a candidate, Michael Czerniewski, teed up to run against Sen. Greg Smith in the 21st District of Johnson County. But moderate and progressive groups are said to be pinning their hopes more on Dinah Sykes, a former PTA president whose website features a picture of her in a bright red shirt, kind of a symbol of teachers unions and other pro-public education groups.
Reporters were also being told Friday to watch for another announcement in the 32nd District, where a high-profile Democrat is expected to announce against Sen. Steve Abrams of Arkansas City.
Democrats have been steadily losing Senate seats for the last 25 years. They're now at only eight seats in the 40-seat chamber, down from 13 after the 1992 elections. They haven't seen a net gain of Senate seats in any election since the 1980s.
For most of that time, though, they were able to form working alliances with moderate Republicans on issues such as K-12 and higher education spending, as well as abortion and other social issues. But that coalition was decimated after the 2012 elections when the Kansas Chamber and other groups allied with Gov. Sam Brownback took control by backing conservative Republicans to challenge sitting moderates.
While most eyes were on the Republican leadership races in the House and Senate on Monday, challenges flared up in the Senate Democratic caucus.
Outnumbered by Republicans 32-8, Senate Democrats generally stick together on issues and try to build coalitions with either moderate or conservative Republicans.
On Monday, Senate Democratic Leader Anthony Hensley, of Topeka, was challenged by state Sen. Tom Holland, D-Baldwin City.
Hensley has been in the Legislature 35 years; the past 20 years in the Senate, and minority leader since 1996.
Holland just won re-election to his second term in the Senate after having served in the House. In 2010, he was the Democratic gubernatorial candidate, losing to Gov. Sam Brownback.
Hensley and Holland tied 4-4 on the first ballot for minority leader, and then Hensley won 5-3.
But state Sen. Laura Kelley, D-Topeka, who just won a tough re-election campaign during the November general election, was upended by state Sen. Marci Francisco, D-Lawrence, for the assistant minority leader position. They also were tied 4-4 on the first ballot and then Francisco won 5-3.
Two members of the Kansas congressional delegation won leadership positions on Wednesday.
U.S. Sen. Jerry Moran, a Republican, was elected to serve as chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, and U.S. Rep. Lynn Jenkins, R-Topeka, was elected vice chair of the House Republican Conference.
Moran will be responsible for recruiting GOP Senate candidates and helping them raise campaign funds.
Jenkins, who just won re-election to a third term, will be part of the Republican leadership team, advancing the party's agenda.