Leader Blues

Wednesday, April 20, 2005

EDITORIAL>> Schools left floundering

However briefly, Arkansas is again a defendant in its courts, where we are expected to explain why, through the medium of our elected lawmakers, we have not provided our children the education that our Constitution promises them.

The attorney for the Rogers School District asked the Supreme Court to reopen the Lake View school case, which the court had closed last year. Rogers says it can’t progress toward a suitable school program with the money and the tools that the legislature gave it in the recently disbanded session. If Rogers, with all its wealth, can’t do it, the rest of the state is in real trouble.

We say “briefly” because the Supreme Court is not apt to give Rogers much of a hearing, not right away. The court — or at least the four-member majority in the last Lake View decision — put itself in an intolerable bind. It issued a mandate in the case and said further litigation would need to be a fresh case. That means a lawsuit will need to be filed in Pulaski Chancery Court, where the Lake View case began many years ago. Three dissenting justices wanted to hold the mandate in abeyance until the legislature had actually fulfilled their oaths and met their constitutional duty. Those justices were frank about the need to keep the pressure on while the goal of an adequate educational program for all was in sight.

Lest state officials be encouraged to think they could slack off because the case was being closed, the court’s majority inserted some tough language in its decision, which Rogers attorney David Matthews seized upon in his petition to the court Thursday to withdraw the mandate and order new review of the legislature’s work.

This is what the court said: “Make no mistake, this court will exercise the power and authority of the judiciary at any time to assure that the students of our state will not fall short of the goal set forth by this court. We will assure its attainment.”

What does that mean? Unless one of the four prevailing justices joins the dissenters it apparently means the court will be very tough, but only when a fresh lawsuit reaches it in three or four years.

We shall see.

The court has already reversed itself once, when it withdrew its mandate in January 2004 and ordered a review of the legislature’s inaction. The lawmakers promptly shaped up and enacted some sweeping educational reform.

If the court reverses itself again and appoints masters to evaluate this legislature’s work, they can hardly miss the failings. Per-pupil spending from basic operating aid allocated by the legislature will not increase a dime next year, and given rising energy costs and new students that amounts to a reduction.

Of some $2 billion in needed capital costs to bring school facilities up to par, which the court had ordered, only about $104 million will be forthcoming. The bond-issue financing that was bruited about as the permanent remedy for school facilities never materialized.

In its 2002 order holding the public education system to be unconstitutional, the Supreme Court said the legislature could no longer allocate money to the schools by simply dividing the pie among the state’s many needs.

Since education was a constitutional mandate and most other services were not, the legislature was expected to determine the schools’ needs first, provide for them and then divide the remainder of the state’s resources among the various government services. The legislature in 2004, under the court’s watchful eye, did that.

But no legislator will argue that it did that this spring. Assembly leaders concluded that taxes could not be raised and, moreover, the legislature sharply lowered available revenues by enacting numerous special tax exemptions and repealing a surcharge on income taxes. Then lawmakers concluded that schools would have to take a hit in the budget next year so that Medicaid, prisons, higher education and the State Police could be funded adequately.

Even state Sen. Jim Argue of Little Rock, the legislature’s fiercest advocate for education, argued that under hard circumstances the lawmakers had done about the best that they could for education, except for facilities. Over his objections, legislators ran away with much of the state’s general improvement fund to spend on local pork projects to help their re-elections.

With any luck, Argue won’t suffer the embarrassment of having his defense tested in a court of law anytime soon.

For the children, there’s always 2007.