Democrats vow to fight school cuts

TOPEKA —Democratic leaders and their gubernatorial candidate for governor rolled out a pledge Thursday vowing to oppose cuts to state education funding.

The signers agreed that they would "make education a top priority in Kansas and will oppose any further cuts in state support to our schools."

Democratic gubernatorial candidate state Sen. Tom Holland of Baldwin City, Senate Democratic Leader Anthony Hensley of Topeka and House Democratic Leader Paul Davis of Lawrence put their signatures on the pledge Thursday during a news conference at the Capitol.

While there are spaces for three other signatures — GOP gubernatorial candidate U.S. Sen. Sam Brownback, House Speaker Rep. Mike O'Neal and Senate President Steve Morris — those lines might remain empty for a while.

O'Neal, R-Hutchinson, called the ploy "pure politics" and asked if the group was going to sign the "no tax" pledge that many Republicans have supported.

Morris, R-Hugoton, said that while he was a strong supporter of education, the problem with any pledge that vows to never do something is that it removes all options.

"You have to have room for a little flexibility," he said.

Brownback has said he wants to change how the state funds education but has not offered details on what changes he would like to see made.

Democrats worried that Brownback's campaign pledge to freeze state general fund spending would result in cuts to programs that have received money from the federal stimulus package. That includes $172 million that was helping to support education.

Part of the $300 million anticipated to come from a three-year, one-cent sales tax increase would help replace the federal money, Holland said.

Hensley noted that a GOP budget plan would not have replaced the $172 million and would have shifted more of the support for schools to local communities through the property tax.

While Brownback has said that improving fourth-grade reading proficiency is one of the benchmarks he wants to use to show his administration is succeeding, Democrats argue the state is already making improvements in that area.

Democrats argue that cutting funding to schools would set the state back in the progress it has made in test scores over the past decade.

The State Board of Education released a report last week showing that reading scores had increased from 59 percent proficiency in 2000 to about 86 percent proficiency this year, Holland said.

"It is like going from grade F to a B," he said.

Math scores went from about 50 percent in 2000 to 83 percent in 2010, he said.

"Soon that B can become an A if we continue to make investments in our public schools," he said.