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Published in Print: December 4, 2002, as Court Orders Arkansas To Fix K-12 Funding

Court Orders Arkansas To Fix K-12 Funding

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Arkansas' 2003 legislative session just got busier.

The state supreme court has declared the state's school funding system unconstitutional, and in its strongly worded opinion late last month rebuked the state for not doing enough to provide all students with an adequate education.

Come early next year, the legislature must add to its agenda the mammoth task of finding a more equitable way of paying for its K-12 schools. The price tag for that endeavor has been pegged at anywhere between $400 million and $900 million a year.

The decision in Lake View School District v. Gov. Mike Huckabee affirmed the major findings of a lower-court ruling last year that deemed the school finance formula unconstitutional for the third time in less than 20 years.

In last year's ruling, Pulaski County Judge Collins Kilgore found that the current funding system, which distributes money on a per-pupil basis, does not consider that poorer districts need additional help. ("Arkansas School Finance System Overturned," June 6, 2001.)

The state appealed, but the Arkansas Supreme Court, in its Nov. 21 ruling, upheld the tenets of the trial court's decision.

"We emphasize, once more, the dire need for changing the school funding system forthwith to bring it into constitutional compliance," Associate Justice Robert Brown wrote in the decision. "No longer can the state operate on a 'hands off' basis regarding how state money is spent in local school districts and what the effect of that spending is."

All of the justices concurred with the majority opinion that the finance system was unconstitutional. One justice wrote a dissent on a technical point not related to the overall issue at the heart of the case.

The 70-page decision noted Arkansas' "abysmal rankings" on such education indicators as high school graduation rates, standardized-test scores, and education expenditures compared with those of other states.

In recent years, Arkansas has ranked last among states in per-capita state and local government expenditures for elementary and secondary education. It also has ranked lower than the national average in the percentage of adults who have graduated from high school.

The opinion also cited testimony about inadequate facilities and low teacher pay in the 226-student Lake View schools, a rural district 60 miles from Memphis, Tenn., where most students qualify for free or reduced-price lunches. In the court's opinion, the justices noted that the district had only one mathematics teacher—who was uncertified and made $10,000 a year—to teach all high school mathematics courses. ("Ark. Leaders Confront Tough Options," Aug. 7, 2002.)

The state had argued that defining an "adequate education," which Arkansas is required to provide to all its students under the state constitution, was impossible to do. But the opinion criticized the state department of education for failing to respond to the legislature's request for an "adequacy study" seven years ago.

Education department officials told the legislature recently it would take several months to complete an adequacy study.

'The Big Issue'

How Arkansas will pay for a more equitable and costly funding system is not clear.

"I don't think at this point we can answer that question," said Rep. Olin Cook, a Democrat and the outgoing chairman of the House education committee. "Sin taxes" on alcohol or cigarettes, he said, are possible revenue sources.

"The funding related to this court case will be the big issue of this [legislative] session," Mr. Cook said. "It's going to be difficult, but I do think some money will be found."

But Dan Farley, the executive director of the Arkansas School Boards Association, said that school districts are already worried about a part of the high court's ruling that could force them to increase local property taxes. The concern stems from a technical and somewhat confusing part of state law that the court struck down.

In 1997, the state legislature adopted a constitutional amendment requiring districts to have at least 25 mills of property tax for maintenance and operation of schools. The court struck down the provision because it allowed districts to include maintenance and operational costs in taxes levied to service bond debt.The supreme court ruled that using the debt-service revenue for maintenance and operation of schools violated the constitutional amendment.

Mr. Farley said that more than 240 school districts would be affected by that part of the decision. "This has many districts in the state very concerned and alarmed," he said.

Sen. Mike Beebe, a Democrat and the Senate's president pro tempore, who was elected state attorney general last month, helped write the state law in question. He says the court misinterpreted the law, and he wants outgoing Attorney General Mark Pryor, a Democrat who has been elected to the U.S. Senate, to ask the court to review that portion of the ruling.

Mr. Pryor must decide before Mr. Beebe takes office in January. The deadline to file a motion is 18 days from the opinion date.

Kellar Noggle, the executive director of the Arkansas Association of Educational Administrators, said a resolution won't be easy, but added, "It's a great opportunity for us to see an improved school system at the end of this process."

Vol. 22, Issue 14, Pages 18,20

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