Leader Blues

Wednesday, October 05, 2005

EDITORIAL >> Masters tell Ledge: No more studies

Halfway through the summer hearings on the state’s compliance with the Lake View school order, it must have been clear even to the lawmakers and other state officials who were defending the state’s work that the task was hopeless. It could have been a surprise to no one when the special masters appointed by the Arkansas Supreme Court to adduce evidence for the court concluded Monday that the legislature and the governor had reneged on their promise to make public education the state’s first priority, as the state Constitution requires.

The evidence and the masters’ analysis were so convincing that it is now equally foregone that the Supreme Court sometime this fall will hold the state in violation of its 2002 order to provide an adequate and equal education for all public school children. Then Gov. Huckabee will have to call a special session of the General Assembly to set things right, which means appropriating appreciably more money both to operate the schools and to modernize school facilities across the state.

We say “foregone” advisedly because four seats on the seven-member Supreme Court are up for election in 2006. Three of them are held by justices who voted with the narrow majority to reopen the Lake View school case to see whether the state lived up to its obligations when it appropriated money for the next two years, a courageous but not altogether popular decision. We trust that the justices will vote their convictions again and not their political fears.

The Supreme Court has been erratic on Lake View over its 13-year history as the case bounced back and forth between trial courts and the high court and after it handed down its landmark decision in 2002 that the substandard and unequal schools of Arkansas flouted the Constitution’s doctrine that education should be both adequate and uniform from border to border. It closed the case after the decision, reopened it when the legislature dawdled, closed it again after the legislature enacted a sizable package of school reforms in 2003 and 2004 and then reopened it again this spring upon the petition of more than 30 school districts when it became evident that schools had taken a back seat in the legislative deliberations.

A fickle court has been the state’s only defense. Gov. Huckabee Monday immediately blasted the court for changing its mind about the case and he indicated that he was fed up with it all. Some of us thought the court had invested too much faith in the legislature when it issued its mandate and closed the case in 2004. But the court’s unmerited faith in the legislature is not a good premise for blaming the court for the problems assailing the schools, including the Pulaski County Special School District, one of the plaintiffs in the lawsuit against the state.

In 2003 and 2004, the legislature passed and the governor signed some impressive laws declaring the state’s intention to keep up with the needs of the public schools and fund them first since they are the only public service mandated by the Constitution. The legislature and governor raised some taxes to meet those needs.
But this year the legislature froze the foundation funding of the schools at last year’s rate, $5,400 a child, and raised that sum only slightly for the 2006-07 school year. While all the other agencies and institutions of government got cost-of-living increases, the schools got none. Meantime, the legislature passed a dozen or so laws imposing new costs on the schools. And while the legislature’s own exhaustive study of every school in the state produced an immediate need for $2.2 billion to improve aged, crowded and unsafe school buildings, the legislature appropriated a mere $120 million for the work and erected a formula that makes it impossible for the neediest schools to get it.

So the masters deduced that the lawmakers became self-satisfied after 2004 and viewed the Supreme Court’s closing of the case that year as a signal that they needed to do little else to satisfy the Constitution.
Legislators and the governor told us that the sky would fall if the court held their work unconstitutional. Taxes would skyrocket and the courts would start running the schools.

But, as the masters pointed out in exhausting and fine detail, the state could have put another $350 million or more into the schools this biennium without a cent more taxes and without denting a single state service. They mentioned the millions put into little pork projects around the state to raise the electoral standing of legislators and the governor.

The masters said the evidence was almost uncontested that the legislature had reneged on making public education the highest priority.

They did not, but could have, mentioned the most recent evidence of misplaced priorities: Gov. Huckabee’s plan to have the voters approve another $150 million debt to build more facilities on college campuses and to give the state Highway Commission a permanent $550 million line of credit with bond daddies and investors. Although we waited for a similar bond arrangement for the public schools — the obvious solution for the schools’ capital problem — it was never broached by lawmakers or the governor. Instead, the legislature decided to study the schools’ facilities problem for a few more years.

As masters David Newbern and Bradley Jesson pleaded, no more studies, please!
Here’s the presidential thing to do, governor. Mute the judge-bashing, and when the court hands down its expected mandate, summon the legislature to Little Rock and show them how we honor the Constitution with deeds, not just words, in Arkansas. It is not that hard.