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Kansas lawmakers hear pleas for funding of college job programs

  • Eagle Topeka bureau
  • Published Thursday, Jan. 9, 2014, at 9:03 p.m.

The presidents of Wichita State University and Wichita Area Technical College say they have plans that could kick-start job growth in south-central Kansas. But they need the Kansas Legislature to sign off on funding them first.

“New jobs and new wealth are created by technology-based innovation. And technology-based innovation is not created by high school dropouts,” said Wichita State University President John Bardo.

With the start of the 2014 legislative session set to begin Monday, Wichita-area lawmakers gathered Thursday at the National Center for Aviation Training in Wichita to hear presentations from local government, education, nonprofit and business representatives.

Bardo asked legislators to support a $1.3 million increase to WSU’s base funding and a $2 million one-time capital investment to enable it to create an “innovation campus,” or a haven for developing technology start-ups. He will present the plan to the state’s Board of Regents next week.

He contended that the bulk of new jobs across the nation have come from technology-based small businesses and said the proposed upgrades to the campus could result in job growth across south-central Kansas.

The proposal received interest from Democrats and Republicans alike.

“It’s going to create jobs,” said Rep. Les Osterman, R-Wichita. “What do we keep saying up there in the House? We want to create new jobs, new money.”

But if the Kansas Supreme Court rules that the state must increase base funding for K-12 education, legislators won’t necessarily be able to pay for new projects, he said. The state is waiting for a ruling on a lawsuit brought by school districts, including Wichita, that contends current levels of school funding violate the state Constitution.

“It depends on what money we have. A lot of people don’t understand how bad our money constraints are,” Osterman said.

Tony Kinkel, president of Wichita Area Technical College, asked lawmakers to restore $2 million in funding cut from the National Center for Aviation Training last year, something both the city of Wichita and Sedgwick County also seek.

As part of his PowerPoint presentation, Kinkel showed legislators a photo of a man in front of a firing squad, warning that competitors in other states are “taking aim at Kansas.”

The meeting was preceded by a tour of NCAT for the legislators. “It’s fundamentally huge for us to have the Legislature here to see what we physically do for aviation and manufacturing,” Kinkel said.

He also said the state needs to do a better job of funding its technical education program for high school students. In 2012, the Legislature passed a bill mandating free technical education for high school students in areas of high economic need.

Gov. Sam Brownback lauded the program’s success at a small business forum in Kansas City earlier this week.

But Kinkel said the long-term viability of the program, which has proven more popular than initially expected, would be endangered without adequate funding.

“It looks like with the current appropriation, we’re probably only getting paid for half our costs,” he said of $741,592 the school is set to receive from the state for the program this year. “At some point, if I’m getting 50 cents on the dollar, I’m going to have rethink what we do there.”

Kinkel noted that some of the students who have participated in the program are using their technical certification to find work that will pay for the cost of a college degree.

Rep. Gail Finney, D-Wichita, voiced her support for increasing the program’s funding.

“It helps our students with an opportunity to get more job placements. Without that, some of our kids would probably be unemployed or underemployed,” Finney said.

Some Republicans were also supportive.

“If we can get the kids where they have a decent-paying job, then you keep them off the Medicaid rolls, welfare and all that,” Osterman said. “It’s a win-win situation.”

But he repeated that the pending K-12 funding decision could affect whether the Legislature could approve a funding increase.

The link between jobs and education also was at the forefront of the presentation by Wichita schools Superintendent John Allison.

“In 1940, you could make a living without a high school diploma, and that has simply changed today,” Allison said. More Kansans need to pursue post-secondary education, he said, citing the district’s focus on literacy as key to making this happen.

Allison did not address the school funding debate directly, but he did say that 88 percent of the district’s funding goes to areas that directly affect students.

Earlier in the week, in her Statehouse office, Senate President Susan Wagle, R-Wichita, questioned the amount of education funding going into classrooms across the state.

“During the years that we have pumped money into this formula, the outcome was more administrators hired at very high salaries and the money didn’t get really pumped into the classroom with the teachers,” Wagle said.

“My concern is getting the dollars to the classroom where the dollars are used to inspire young people,” she added.

Reach Bryan Lowry at 785-298-3006 or blowry@wichitaeagle.com. Follow him on Twitter: @BryanLowry3.

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