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Steve Kraske: Court ruling aids Brownback

A clear winner in Friday’s convoluted Kansas Supreme Court ruling on school funding?

Gov. Sam Brownback.

Consider what didn’t happen. The seven-judge panel could have sided with a lower court and ordered $400 million more be spent on schools now.

That surely would have triggered a constitutional crisis, with conservatives insisting they would do no such thing. Chaos would have reigned.

And Brownback’s re-election prospects – already not a cinch – might have nose-dived.

That didn’t happen. Instead, the state’s highest court appeared to go out of its way to avoid a confrontation. The judges ordered more spending for poor districts – and even that came with a caveat – and sent the meatiest part of the case back to a lower court for review.

Bottom line: The potential for a knock-down, drag-out fight before the November election may not happen after all.

That’s a huge break for Brownback. Voters don’t appreciate chaos. And now they may not be forced to face it.

On Friday afternoon, Brownback came off as a calm, reasonable leader, declaring that in the wake of the ruling, “We have an opportunity for progress. We will fix this.”

He didn’t bash the court. He didn’t object to the court’s declaration that ordering more school spending is within the court’s purview.

Friday’s ruling won’t turn the final weeks of the legislative session into a circus for the national media. So it was a short-term win for the Republican governor.

But now Brownback will face all manner of questions about his commitment to education and whether he’s willing to spend hundreds of millions more if the courts order it. That’s tricky for Brownback, a conservative. For his Democratic opponent, House Minority Leader Paul Davis of Lawrence, the task is easier. He’s been saying for months that Republicans have shortchanged the schools. That was obvious even before the court ruled, he said.

Voters apparently side with him. By a 59 to 29 percent majority in a recent poll, Kansans said the Supreme Court should order more school spending.

Something else happened last week that Brownback has noticed, and it explains his sudden shift to the center. On a sleety Wednesday night in Overland Park, eight months before the November election – and with a KU basketball game on TV – Davis spoke to a standing-room-only crowd of 200.

They were pretty enthusiastic, too.