Leader Blues

Wednesday, December 21, 2005

EDITORIAL >> High court does it again

For the third time in three years, the Arkansas Supreme Court instructed the legislature and the governor this week to fix the funding of public schools so that the 450,000 children are assured suitable and roughly equal educational opportunities.

While it was extending them a third chance, the court seemed a trifle more impatient with the lawmakers, who this year disregarded the laws they had designed themselves to produce a constitutional school system.

In a little more than 11 months, a constitutional system must be firmly in place. The court stayed its mandate in the old Lake View school case until then.

What happens then if the state has not acted? The court was, as usual, vague but resolute.

The Supreme Court is obliged to see to it that the will of the people when they wrote the Constitution is followed, the court said, and it added: “We will perform that duty.” We can only guess that the court would then order its own remedy.

One concurring justice, Tom Glaze, said the Constitution fully clothed the Supreme Court with the power to enforce the constitutional mandate for an equitable and suitable school system.

But that need not and, we are confident, will not happen. The issues actually are far less complicated than in 2004 and 2005, when the legislature previously addressed the court’s landmark decision, and the state demonstrably now has resources in hand to complete most of the task.

The state budget has some $100 million of play between revenues and expenditures that it could direct to the schools this year and anticipated cash balances of close to $300 million by the end of the current two-year budget cycle that can be committed to school facilities.

Those are the principal shortcomings that the court-appointed masters found in school funding, which the court itself embraced.
After passing legislation in 2004 to make education the state’s No. 1 priority in budgeting, the legislature this year failed to give the public schools even the cost-of-living increase that was allotted to all other public employees and agencies, including the legislators themselves. Another $100 million appropriation from current revenues would do that.

While the legislature’s own study showed that there were $2.2 billion in immediate needs for school construction and repairs, it appropriated only $120 million over the next two years. That sum could be quadrupled without affecting the other urgent needs of the state and without new taxes.

In case anyone thought the issue was not urgent, the court said the issues needed to be dealt with “immediately” and “forthwith” so that children this school year might see the fruits of the labor.

But Gov. Huckabee, who flew back from a governors’ meeting in Arizona to make the same news cycle, said there was no urgency and that he might not call a special legislative session at all because one might not be needed.

Clearly, he had not digested the court’s opinions. Neither ignoring the decision nor waiting until the fall of 2006 is an option unless he and legislators pointedly want to invite a contempt citation by the court for whatever political rewards might flow from standing up to the judiciary.
Huckabee just as clearly had given some thought to the issues in advance because he knew full well what the court would say.

He said he would like to have a current adequacy report on the schools, legislation that would take more regulation of local schools away from school boards and rest it with the state — superintendent and coaching salaries, for example — and an up-to-date survey of the condition of school facilities. He wants further consolidation of small school districts to be part of the remedy, and it ought to be.

But some of the governor’s hedging seemed to be just dilatory. He wants detailed accounting of all school spending in the state before he calls a session to deal with underfunding.

He divided total annual education spending by the number of school classrooms in Arkansas and came up with the figure of $94,150 of spending this year for each classroom.

The average teacher salary is only $39,266. So what happened, he asked, to the other $54,884? The answer, of course, is: retirement and Social Security matching, health insurance, buses, bus drivers, fuel, electricity, gas, water, cafeteria and janitorial workers, school books, supplies, equipment, building repairs and debt repayment.

Someone might ask the same question of his office. The governor’s office this year is spending $5.1 million, but the governor is paid only about $81,000 of that. What happened to the other $5 million?

No, more delay is not the answer. Let’s don’t risk a fourth chance.