Education Funding

Election 2014 Caravan of Delights: Kansas Gubernatorial Race

By Andrew Ujifusa — October 30, 2014 4 min read
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As we get closer to the Nov. 4 general election, I will take a look each day at a state election of interest. (If you’ve missed my election reporting from California, Florida, and Georgia, you’ve still got time to catch up!) I’ll look at polling numbers and the candidates’ general positions on K-12 issues, and I’ll also highlight the political and policy environments that are influencing the debate about public schools. For the sake of brevity, I’ll only focus on the Democratic and Republican candidates. Today I’ll look at the race for governor in Kansas.

After winning the election comfortably four years ago, GOP Gov. Sam Brownback is in a dog fight with Democratic state Rep. Paul Davis, the Kansas House minority leader. It’s worth remembering that from 2003 to 2009, Kansas had a Democratic governor in Kathleen Sebelius. But Brownback’s getting attention because he’s remade the Kansas budget and fiscal policies in a more conservative image. That overhaul includes K-12 spending, where fights over budget cuts and a long-running court battle over what the constitution requires of the state have added fuel to the race.

Neither candidate has reached the 50-percent mark in polling in recent months, and since October, Brownback has fought back to make the race essentially even, according to the running polling average kept by Real Clear Politics. In the last quarter, the Republican Governors Association spent about $4 million on the race to shore up support for Brownback, the Kansas City Star reported.

Sam Brownback

The debate over school funding in Kansas can get complicated rather quickly. Remember, as I mentioned above, there’s a court case, Gannon v. Kansas, that plays into K-12 funding conversations in the state. In that case, the state Supreme Court ruled last March that the state treats less-wealthy districts inequitably, but it declined to rule whether (as the district plaintiffs allege) the K-12 funding system provides inadequate resources. It remanded that portion of the case to a lower court, which has yet to rule.

Brownback is keenly aware that he’s been cast by many, including Davis, as a governor who’s slashed resources for K-12. On his website, he tries to counter those claims, saying for example that state spending on K-12 has actually increased by $270 million since he took office. The state passed a high-profile per-student spending increase through legislation this year. But Mark Tallman, a lobbyist for the Kansas Association of School Boards, reports that when adjusted for inflation, state spending on public schools doesn’t completely fit either of the narratives pushed by the respective candidates. Pay particular attention to the blue bar in the chart below, and remember that student enrollment in Kansas is on the rise:

That K-12 aid bill Brownback signed this year included other major policy changes. It not only created a $10 million tax-credit scholarship program in Kansas, but it ended tenure protections for teachers in the state. That’s triggered a lawsuit by the KNEA, which says the changes to tenure law were made improperly in the legislative process.

Paul Davis

You won’t be surprised to hear that Davis, who took office the same year Sebelius began her time as governor, has been endorsed by the KNEA, and Davis has weighed in against the tax-credit scholarship program as well as the elimination of teacher tenure. Relatively speaking, the union’s political action committee it hasn’t put a boatload of money directly into Davis’ campaign—only $2,000 during the last quarter, according to state campaign finance records—but during the same period, it gave $150,000 (the vast majority of its donations during that quarter) to the Kansas Values Institute, which has criticized Brownback in TV ads.

Davis has slammed Brownback for making “the largest cut to education in history,” a claim that a local CBS affiliate found misleading, since larger total per-student funding cuts actually took place under Democratic Gov. Mark Parkinson, Brownback’s predecessor, in 2009, as the economy bottomed out. In subsequent remarks, Davis has stated that Brownback made “the single largest cut” to per-student funding in the state, a claim that seems to have more substance.

He’s also used the Gannon court case to highlight how he tried to slowly restore the state’s education budget as the economic recession dissipated, only to have Brownback reject it.

Other Delights in the Caravan

Regardless of who’s elected, Kansas lawmakers will face a tremendous challenge if a state court rules in the Gannon case that the state is inadequately funding public schools. In an interesting interstate legal storyline, the court has been directed to judge the case by the parameters of the Rose v. Council of Education case. In that case, based on claims from relatively poor districts that the state’s school finance system was unconstitutional, the Kentucky Supreme Court ruled that in fact the entire K-12 system violated the Kentucky Constitution. That led to major reforms approved by the state legislature in 1990.

Could Kansas see a repeat of the outcome of the Rose trial? And how would Brownback and Davis react to a similar ruling?

A version of this news article first appeared in the State EdWatch blog.