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Judge Gives Ark. Lawmakers 2 Years To Fix Formula

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A chancery-court judge in Arkansas has declared the state's school-funding formula unconstitutional, and she gave the legislature two years to correct it.

But a lawyer representing the Lake View school district, which filed the lawsuit challenging the formula two years ago, said he is not optimistic that lawmakers will solve the problem. He plans to ask the judge to clarify her order.

Pulaski County Chancellor Annabelle Clinton Imber ruled earlier this month that the state does not provide a "general, suitable, and efficient" system for financing its public schools, as mandated by the state constitution. But her 52-page decision did not indicate how the formula would have to change.

Don Trimble, one of the lawyers who represented the plaintiff district, called the judge's decision "a victory, without question."

But Jimmie L. Wilson, a state representative who serves as the lead lawyer for the district, said he plans to file a motion asking the judge to be more specific.

"It may be one of the few times in the history of jurisprudence where a person won and may have come out a loser," he said.

Several defendants in the case said they were somewhat pleased with the ruling. "In a way, it could help the state move forward," said Gene Wilhoit, the state's director of general education.

With two years to draft a new formula, he said, "we won't have to do this in a panic kind of situation." But, he said, "We will know the courts are there, watching us."

Gov. Jim Guy Tucker has repeatedly called for revision of the formula. He plans to address the issue as soon as he can--either in the next legislative session or in a special session immediately following it--said his press secretary, Max Parker.

Ruling Lends Urgency

Rep. Edward F. Thicksten, who has overseen the school-funding formula for several years as chairman of the House budget committee, said last week that he was urging the Governor not to appeal the decision.

"We knew that our school-funding formula was going to be [ruled] out of balance in some way," he said, "and we knew there were some areas we needed to address."

"It gives us some guidance beyond existing legislation as to what a fair, equitable system of funding education is," added Sen. George Hopkins, who is a co-chairman of a state task force on school finance.

That panel, which includes legislators and representatives from the state education department, has been meeting for nearly a year, according to Mr. Hopkins. The ruling may give "more credence to a major rewrite of the funding formula," he said.

The task force was set to meet Nov. 21 and to release recommendations shortly after then. Mr. Wilhoit said the commission will likely suggest simplifying the formula; increasing "second tier" funding, which targets money to poor districts; improving the tax-assessment system; and providing more aid to serve limited-English-proficient and at-risk students.

Spending Gaps Widen

But Mr. Wilson, the lead lawyer for the plaintiff, said that without more guidance from the court, inequities would not be remedied any more than they were after a judge first ruled the finance system unconstitutional in 1978.

After the state supreme court upheld that ruling in 1983, lawmakers enacted revisions to the complex formula. But despite the changes, financial disparities between rich and poor districts actually rose between the 1978-79 and 1992-93 school years.

For example, in 1978-79, the Little Rock district, one of the state's highest-spending districts, spent $639 more per pupil than the Cedarville district, which was near the bottom in per-pupil funding. By 1992-93, the gap had widened to $1,874.

Last year, the Arkansas City district spent $6,711 per pupil, the highest in the state, while the Harrison district spent the least per pupil, at $2,336.

School districts in Arkansas get about 60 percent of their funds from the state, 30 percent from local property taxes, and 10 percent from the federal government.

The plaintiff in the current suit, the 230-student Lake View school district, a predominantly African-American district in which 94 percent of students qualify for free or reduced-price lunches, spends more per student than about 25 percent of Arkansas districts. But it must levy a relatively onerous property tax to do so. To raise the same revenue as the Newark district, for example, Lake View would have to tax itself 32 times as much.

Amendment 40

And Mr. Wilson is not convinced that a remedy is at hand.

"When it comes to children who are not in the mainstream," he said, "this legislature is very, very, very reactionary."

Besides failing to specify how the aid formula should change, Mr. Wilson noted, the court also did not address Amendment 40, a provision of the state constitution. It mandates that property taxes be used only within the district where they were raised, removing the option of redistributing them. Mr. Wilson argues that the provision contradicts the constitution's equal-protection clause and should be voided.

"There's a question this court didn't want to answer," Mr. Wilson said, "whether a state court can render unconstitutional a provision of the state constitution."

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