Leader Blues

Wednesday, January 04, 2006

EDITORIAL >> Convene special session

By ERNIE DUMAS

Solemn pronouncements by Gov. Mike Huckabee generally leave one with two impulses, cheering and scoffing. So it was with the governorís disclosure last week that he had set certain conditions that will have to be met before he will call the General Assembly into session to deal with the school crisis.

Every one of his conditions represents a good idea that would introduce a greater measure of efficiency and accountability to public education. But they need not be conditions for calling lawmakers to Little Rock to satisfy the Arkansas Supreme Courtís order to put the public schools on a constitutional basis, immediately. It is not even remotely possible that legislators, who are in repose until January 2007 or until he calls them into special session, can meet his conditions ó not before they are even assembled.

Huckabee suggested again that it might not be necessary for the legislature to meet this year. If he believes that, he needs to read the Supreme Courtís very clear decision. It said the schools need to be funded at a level that will enable them to have constitutional programs this school year, 2005-06. The legislature might conclude, based on an analysis of programs and budgets this year, that schools are funded at precisely the right level this year, but that cannot be done unless the lawmakers actually meet and vote. The overwhelming proof at evidentiary hearings before the Supreme Courtís masters last fall was that the money was inadequate.

So the legislature must assemble, and it must make a few decisions right away. As the court itself said, the governor and the legislature have the evidence they need to make those decisions. The court said the legislature in 2005 flouted its own law, which said it would meet the needs of the public schools before it adopted the state budget every two years and that it would fund school needs first, a good education being the only mandated state service in the Constitution. The legislature did not make the needs determination and it gave the public schools, alone among all the services of government, no cost-of-living increase. It also found that the state came nowhere close to providing enough money for schools to bring their facilities to an adequate level.

Huckabee said that before calling a legislative session he wanted a study of the cost of adequate schools finished. But that study is not due until September and it will deal with the needs from July 1, 2007, until June 30, 2009. The legislature is under mandate to fix the funding this year. Here is a little formula that we bet will meet constitutional muster. Add a CPI quotient, about 3.5 percent, to this yearís and next yearís state foundation aid.

No higher taxes would be needed. Tax collections are running $100 million or more above the budgeted spending of all of state government this year and that sum would fund the school needs the next two years with some left over. The already fat surplus and the smaller sums that would be left after the schoolsí funding over the two years could supplement the legislatureís meager appropriation for public school construction and repairs. The latter would not be enough obviously to bring the schools up to par (roughly $2 billion, according to a legislative study), but it would be a good start. The legislature could put a statewide school bond issue on the ballot at the general election to meet that need once and for all.

But we may cavil too much with the governorís words. All his ideas are thoughtful and bold: more consolidation of tiny rural schools, stricter and more detailed accounting of spending by every school district, a statewide salary scale for administrators, consolidated administration (one superintendent per county perhaps), an audit of school district fund balances, a close up-to-date evaluation of the capital needs of the schools, and an advisory committee of honored classroom teachers who might tell legislators and the governor what is wrong that superintendents and consultants arenít telling them.

Getting the word from actual educators is an especially good idea. Something tells us that we would get an earful about No Child Left Behind and the obsession with standardized tests. The public needs to hear it, and we donít think the teachers will mind telling them. Huckabee wants to keep their advice secret. Bad idea.

None of those proposals are essential to addressing the courtís mandate, but the governor may want to go further and have a good and comprehensive session on education, like Gov. Bill Clintonís in 1983 and like the one Huckabee called in 2003-04, both after similar Supreme Court mandates.

The season does not seem especially propitious politically ó Huckabee is running for president and legislators are worrying about political opponents ó but, hey, Huckabee is the political genius, not us.

If he thinks he can whip these nervous politicians into line for some real reforms like consolidation, we are for him.