By Travis Perry │ Kansas Watchdog
OSAWATOMIE — A conservative Kansas lawmaker says allegations of him harboring a conflict of interest against state public universities are a distraction to shift the conversation away from real issues.
The Topeka Capital-Journal reported last week that Newton Republican Rep. Marc Rhoades, who played a key role in the legislature’s decision to reduce funding this year to public universities, also works for the University of Phoenix, a for-profit college operating online and in physical locations, including one in Lenexa.
For Senate Minority Leader Anthony Hensley, D-Topeka, the revelation was a red flag.
“To my way of thinking that would give credence to him having a conflict of interest on this issue because they’re direct competitors to Kansas regents institutions,” Hensley told the newspaper.
Several members of the Legislature have vested interests in higher education funding, including Rep. Barbara Ballard, D-Lawrence, who is a University of Kansas administrator. Hensley, a consistent proponent of K-12 funding, is a teacher in Topeka‘s USD 501.
But Hensley said those connections are well-known, while Rhoades’ connection to University of Phoenix, which dates back to at least 2007, has not been widely publicized. Hensley, the Legislature’s longest-serving member, said he did not know about it until Thursday.
“I believe that, in as much as he’s been a strong and vocal critic of the regents, I think that’s relevant information for people to know about,” Hensley said.
Rhoades said the issue of his connection to the for-profit university pales in comparison to the problems facing Kansas’ higher education institutions.
“Even with the 1.5 percent (funding) reduction, Kansas state spending on higher education is above the national average. Tuition increased 145 percent compared to 30 percent inflation in the same time with no correlation between tuition hikes and steady or higher state spending,” Rhoades said. “Schools can always spend more, but students cannot. Addressing this disparity ought to be a bipartisan conversation, but flame throwers have an interest in conflict in order to keep the discussion off topic.”
Rhoades chairs the House Appropriations and Legislative Budget committees.
Hensley disagreed with Rhoades framing of his connection with the University of Phoenix.
“I don’t understand what he means that it’s a distraction, when you talk about issues you’ve got to talk about them in their entirety,” Hensley told Kansas Watchdog. “He’s working for an institution that’s in direct competition with the Regents (universities). I presume from Marc Rhoades standpoint, whatever negative light he can shed on the Regents, it’s going to potentially benefit his employer, and that seems to be a rather relevant issue when you’re talking about regents funding.”
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