November 21, 2002
Posted at: 9:30 p.m. CDT
JONESBORO, Ark. -- Drastic changes are on the horizon for public education in Arkansas. The state Supreme Court ruled Thursday that the state has failed its 450,000 public school children with a funding system that is inequitable, inadequate, and unconstitutional.
"Public education in Arkansas has come to a cross-roads," Little Rock Public School Superintendent Dr. Ken James said.
In a 70-page ruling, the court reaffirmed a May 2001 ruling by Pulaski County Chancellor Collins Kilgore that the school funding formula used by the state violates the equal protection clause of the Arkansas Constitution.
The majority opinion, written by Associate Justice Robert L. Brown, was very blunt in its assessment of the way money is spent on education in the state. The justices gave the state legislature until January 2004 to increase school funding and to spread it around evenly.
"It is the General Assembly's constitutional duty, not that of the school districts, to provide equal educational opportunity to every child in the state," Brown wrote. "Equality of educational opportunity must include as basic components substantially equal curricula, substantially equal facilities, and substantially equal equipment for obtaining an adequate education... The state has failed in each of these responsibilities."
Currently, Arkansas spends $1.7 billion a year on educating student spread out amongst its 310 independent school districts. The high court said students are entitled to a "general, suitable and efficient'' education system and the state has failed to provide one. Governor Mike Huckabee said that the ruling will mean big changes in Arkansas.
"As of this ruling, there is no such thing as local control of schools," Huckabee said. "It will be in the hands of the state, not only in funding but also in expenditures and that it will mark a dramatic difference in the responsibility for the operation of schools and in essence make the state the statewide school board for the 310 school districts."
Huckabee also said that a special legislative session may be needed to address the issue. Legislators said Thursday that public schools will be the overriding issue of the legislative session that begins January 13. They said other interests claiming a need for more funding have little shot this time around.Some said that cuts in services along with a tax increase may be required.
Some of the issues that may come before the General Assembly as they attempt to comply with the Court's order could include school consolidation, a lottery, or the raising of taxes, among other potential solutions.
Cathy Ruiz has a son four years away from beginning public school. She said that people are tired of seeing and hearing about the government, and that she would be opposed to any increase in her taxes.
"They know it won't go into education," Ruiz said. "It's going to be put somewhere else. They never put it where they say it's going to go."
Jonesboro School Superintendent Dr. Bill Beasley is waiting to find out what lawmakers are going to do when they descend on Little Rock in a little less than two months.
"The state could, with an amendment to the constitution, direct local districts to raise property tax like they did before," Beasley said.
In 1996, voters approved a constitutional amendment that fixed a statewide uniform property tax rate of 25 mills for maintaining and operating local school districts. The amendment permitted increases in the uniform millage rate as ``variances'' to enhance public education.
However, other parents like Pat Thompson may not be willing to support another tax increase when she feels the state hasn't done a good job with the money they already take in.
"No, it hasn't helped so far," said Thompson.