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Ark. Officials Gearing Up for School-Finance Overhaul

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Gov. Jim Guy Tucker of Arkansas and state lawmakers were taking their places last week for a school-finance drama that is expected to dominate the state's three-month legislative season.

In an unusual move, the full House and Senate convened daily during their opening week to attend educational seminars on the terms, tactics, and terrors of school-finance reform. To cap off the training, Governor Tucker appeared before lawmakers and suggested a revolutionary new system that would drastically redraw the state's school districts and make teacher salaries a state expense. His plan moved beyond the recommendations of a task force he appointed to study the issue.

"You can look at the court issue of equity, or take the moral issue of equity or the separate issue of efficiency, but the Governor has taken all of that together, and he's leaped ahead of everybody," said Kellar Noggle, the executive director of the Arkansas Association of Educational Administrators. "So naturally there are just a lot of questions about it all right now."

Arkansas officials began to confront the need to make corrections in the finance system last year, after it was revealed that the state had been misapplying its own formula for several years.

Then a Pulaski County judge ruled in November that the state's school-funding program is unconstitutional and gave lawmakers two years to correct it. (See Education Week, 11/23/94.)

The state's policymakers do not dispute that conclusion.

"It should be reformed because the way we do it now is not fair," Governor Tucker said in his State of the State speech last week. "It's not fair to our kids. It's not fair to the people paying the bills. It should be reformed because almost no one understands it."

Starting Over

State officials realize that they are tackling a big job. They said they will mobilize a campaign to familiarize citizens with the problem while trying to build a consensus with a host of education interest groups.

Like most other such states, Arkansas uses a school-funding system fraught with complicated laws and formulas that shuffle money in an attempt to help poor school districts catch up to their wealthy counterparts.

Because of the wide-ranging levels of wealth in Arkansas communities, state officials are faced with a situation in which a teacher with 25 years of experience in a poor district may make less money than an entry-level teacher in a wealthy district.

Mr. Tucker last week suggested that lawmakers would be best off simply starting over.

"What we're trying to do is gut the old way we've been doing things and begin from scratch, which is going to take some debate and some time," said Max Parker, the Governor's press secretary.

Under the Governor's proposal, the state would create 34 school districts encompassing its 75 counties. Ideally, each district would have approximately the same amount of property wealth. The state would then impose a minimum local tax rate that would generate roughly the same amount of property-tax funding for each new district. Mr. Tucker suggested a 30-cent tax rate, the current state average.

Local districts could ask voters to approve a levy higher than the minimum rate to pay for additional programs or expenses.

State money would be used to help poor districts pay a minimum rate for teacher salaries, one of the biggest expenses for districts, thus promoting equity on the two most important fronts: local funding and teacher pay.

State officials would also begin work on defining what constitutes an "adequate" education and how much it costs.

Political Courage

Ms. Parker said that while the Governor is willing to negotiate on the number of districts or the new system's structure, he will not bend on his demands for equalized spending and teacher pay.

"We must take care of the children and teachers and make sure it is fair to the taxpayers," Ms. Parker said. "In the past, we've just looked at school districts, not our obligation to all children and teachers."

The Governor's proposal, which will be introduced as a bill in the next few weeks, has left many observers and lawmakers realizing that they will have to become quick studies on school funding. They had been focusing on a task-force report that recommended amending the current finance system, and then pumping $87 million into the improved formula and a new program to help poor districts with building costs.

Officials in the state's 312 school districts are also speculating on what the debate may mean for them.

Observers said that the range of questions--including the touchy issue of district consolidation--and the depth of the problem may combine to push the issue beyond the legislature's regular 60-day session.

"No one is going to be able to make an argument that doing this isn't right or fair," Ms. Parker said. "The only question is whether there is the political courage to do it."

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