TOPEKA Kansas Democrats said Saturday that a day-old school funding ruling from the state's highest court will help their chances of unseating Republican Gov. Sam Brownback this year as Democratic challenger Paul Davis makes education spending the cornerstone issue of his campaign.
Several hundred Democratic officials and activists gathered in Topeka for their biggest annual statewide meeting, Washington Days. Events began Friday and included receptions, speeches, caucuses, party-building workshops, a fundraising auction and a late-night dance.
The Kansas Supreme Court ruled Friday in a lawsuit filed by parents and districts that the state's school funding is unconstitutional. The unanimous decision directed the GOP-dominated Legislature to boost aid to poor districts by July 1 and ordered more lower-court hearings on how much the state must spend overall to provide an adequate education to every child.
"It gives us confirmation of what we believe, which is that people want to see their schools funded, and we have been shirking our duty," said state Rep. Julie Menghini, a Pittsburg Democrat.
Democrats make up less than 25 percent of the state's 1.7 million registered voters, compared with 44 percent for Republicans. Davis, the Kansas House minority leader, has mounted a spirited challenge to Brownback's re-election, raising $1 million in cash contributions in less than five months at the end of 2013.
Davis skipped Saturday morning and afternoon events in Topeka to spend time with family in Lawrence. But in a Saturday evening banquet speech, he said Kansans are "passionate about restoring our schools."
"We believe we have a moral obligation to educate our children," Davis said in his prepared remarks, which he released before his speech.
The governor on Friday described the Supreme Court ruling as "an opportunity for progress." Brownback and GOP legislative leaders said that they're pleased with the decision because the court didn't set a specific target for overall spending and that the justices gave lawmakers a lot of discretion in improving aid to poor districts.
Kansas GOP Executive Director Clay Barker also noted that the Supreme Court's guidelines for examining total spending focus on whether students are performing up to expectations, rather than raw estimates for schools' costs. Top Republicans have long argued that the state ought to focus on outcomes, not money.
"It does change the dynamics of the debate," Barker said. "It was kind of an accounting fight."
In wooing unaffiliated voters and disaffected moderate Republicans, Davis has criticized Brownback for pursuing income tax cuts worth nearly $3.9 billion over the next five years as an economic stimulus, rather than fully restoring cuts in base aid to public schools that started in 2009 because of the Great Recession.
The state's yearly base aid to schools is $386 million lower than it was for the 2008-09 school year. It's now $3,838 per student instead of $4,400.
The figure increased slightly in 2012, and the state has covered other costs, such as rising teacher pension payments. Brownback has proposed phasing in full state funding for all-day kindergarten programs, and he's repeatedly noted that total aid to schools — more than just base aid, from local, state and federal sources — has increased since he took office.
Democrats said Brownback's all-day kindergarten proposal or his reaction to the court ruling won't remove school funding as a major issue.
"Kansans in many polls overwhelmingly support public education and increasing funding for public education," said Lee Kinch, a Wichita attorney and the Kansas Democratic Party's vice chairman. "That is THE big issue."