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Published in Print: January 7, 2004, as Ark. Lawmakers Settle for Stopgap School Aid Plan

Ark. Lawmakers Settle for Stopgap School Aid Plan

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Arkansas lawmakers finally seemed poised to pass a stopgap school funding package last week, as they scrambled against the clock to meet a Jan. 1 deadline imposed by the state supreme court.

The deadline has loomed since the court declared Arkansas' school funding formula unconstitutional in November 2002 and, in a strongly worded opinion, directed the legislature to fix the problem quickly.

At press time Dec. 31, the state senate approved a "patch" funding bill to provide about $16 million in new aid to the state's poorest school districts.The bill was put on the House calendar last week. The funds would help districts buy computers, hire literacy specialists and provide after-school instruction.

Debate over how to comply with the ruling has dominated the state's legislative business and public forums for the past several months.

Among the various proposals that have made a major challenge even thornier for lawmakers was a push by Gov. Huckabee, a Republican, to consolidate the state's smaller school districts to increase efficiency.

Rural educators and lawmakers who represent districts where small schools are common have fiercely fought such plans. ("Compromise Emerges to Fix Ark. Schooling," March 12, 2003.)

While appeasing the Arkansas Supreme Court for now, the stopgap measure also would buy legislators some time before they return for the 2004 regular session. That is when they will have to address more substantially far-ranging issues, such as crafting a new funding formula and working out a compromise on school consolidation.

Lawmakers reached the resolution in the fourth week of a special session.

"We got us a real donnybrook brewing," said Charles Knox, the assistant director of the Arkansas Association of Educational Administrators. "This funding formula is what seems to be staring everyone in the face."

In its 2002 ruling, the high court was explicit in its directions.

"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 Lake View School District v. Gov. Mike Huckabee. "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."

Consolidation Hurdle

Despite the last-minute action by lawmakers, significant work remains, said Stacy Pittman, the chairwoman of the Arkansas State Chamber of Commerce and the co-chairwoman of the state's Blue Ribbon Commission on Public Education.

"We don't have a school funding formula yet; no one knows what the organizational structure of districts will be; we haven't addressed teacher salaries or academic standards," Ms. Pittman said.

But she remains hopeful that Arkansas is moving in the right direction. "As long as the state stays focused," she said, "we should be able to create a system that will be constitutional and defensible in court, but more importantly, takes care of the needs of Arkansas students."

Marty Strange, the policy program director for the Rural School and Community Trust, a Washington-based advocacy group, sees the passionate fight over school consolidation as part of a historic cycle that often ends up with resolutions that find rural schools on the losing end.

"The reality is there is a long pattern in the whole question of school funding decisions nationwide," Mr. Strange said. "When rural people sue the state and win, the legislature almost always turns on them with some form of consolidation.

"I don't want to suggest it's done merely for vindictive reasons," he continued. "A lot of people honestly believe bigger is better, and they honestly believe poor people can't run schools."

Jimmy Cunningham, the superintendent of the 300-student Plainview-Rover school district in central Arkansas and the president of the state's Rural Education Association, said that he believes small districts are being unfairly targeted for consolidation.

At the same time, he is quick to note that the debate has been a distraction from meeting the court order.

"We have got so caught up in the consolidation issue that it's delayed efforts on school funding," he said. "We have made no movement. Here we are with funding being the issue, and we're not going anywhere."

Vol. 23, Issue 16, Pages 19,23

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