State of the States
Ark. Governor Says Surplus Should Finance Facilities
Gov. Mike Huckabee of Arkansas, in his final State of the State Address, urged lawmakers last week to spend cash from the state’s budget surplus on school buildings that are in pressing need of repair.
But the Republican governor, who is prohibited by law from running for a third term, also asked the legislature to concentrate on issues other than just school facilities—a topic that has dominated the legislature since a 2002 Arkansas Supreme Court decision ordered the state to improve student achievement and the conditions of schools.
“Let us also deal with issues that quite frankly are the long-term kind of issues that we must address for the simple reason that we cannot afford to ignore them,” he said in the Jan. 10 speech, urging a focus on health, highways, and higher education.
The state supreme court decision affirmed a lower court’s ruling in the Lake View School District v. Gov. Mike Huckabee case that found the state’s funding system, which distributes money on a per-pupil basis, was unconstitutional. The courts held that the system did not do enough to help ensure all students received an adequate education.
A task force appointed by state lawmakers concluded in November that the state must spend nearly $2.3 billion to improve school buildings, including $86.7 million in emergency repairs.
Mr. Huckabee proposed drawing from an expected $120 million budget surplus in fiscal 2005 for the urgent repairs.
Calls Step ‘Prudent’
“It would be prudent upon us to spend cash money that we will have on hand, money that will go into every single area of your legislative districts ultimately, in order that we can address clearly, effectively, and authoritatively those issues that have been identified as critical issues—the issues that give our children a safe place to go to school and a comfortable place in which to learn,” he told the legislature.
According to the state budget office, Gov. Huckabee has proposed spending $2.3 billion for K-12 schools in his fiscal 2006 budget—a $200 million, or nearly 10 percent, increase over what they will receive this fiscal year.
Dan Farley, the executive director of the Arkansas School Boards Association, said that the governor’s speech was overall “very good and positive.”
He said perhaps Mr. Huckabee felt a need to shift the focus to other issues because the court ruling has dominated the legislature for the past two years. He said the governor has also taken some brickbats over a merger law—which Mr. Huckabee supported—that requires small school districts to combine with larger, neighboring ones. ("Legal Battles Continue as Arkansas Districts Merge," July 14, 2004.)
Mr. Farley agreed with the governor that the state has made significant progress on improving its public schools since the court order, including improved test scores.
Gov. Huckabee credited the higher test scores to the implementation of the Smart Start and Smart Step programs, both of which began under his administration and are designed to improve professional development for teachers and administrators in elementary and middle schools.
“It’s the first time ever in our state’s history,” the governor said, “we have had sustained and ongoing progress and measurable results by having lifted the standards and having required greater levels of accountability on all of the stakeholders in the education system.”
Mr. Huckabee added that he would propose amending the state’s College Bond Act of 1989 to free up $150 million for operating costs for public colleges and universities to help keep tuition rates down. The Department of Higher Education is seeking $692 million in fiscal 2006. He also promised more research dollars for institutions of higher education.
Hoping to join a handful of states with similar policies, the governor announced he would ask lawmakers to make financial aid available to any student graduating from a high school in Arkansas—a proposal that could benefit the children of undocumented immigrants.
“Let’s open both our doors and our opportunities and create a whole new generation of kids who have the opportunity to be prosperous and to bring to their families the hope that they came here for,” Mr. Huckabee said.
Vol. 24, Issue 19, Pages 16,18