Leader Blues

Monday, February 26, 2007

EDITORIALS>>Funding our schools

Gov. Beebe and legislative leaders agreed this week on a school budget for the next two years and to compliment themselves for having done it nobly. The governor said the product would raise public education above and beyond the level of adequate that is required by the Constitution. House Speaker Benny Petrus Jr. said this legislature would go down in history “for getting us out of Lake View.” He was referring to the long-running lawsuit of that name that produced a sequence of orders from the Arkansas Supreme Court that the legislature and governor contrive a public school system that provides a suitable — i.e., “adequate” — education for every single child in Arkansas.

Let’s stipulate that the school budget looks far better than the preliminary plan embraced by the Legislative Council in December, thanks to Gov. Beebe’s cunning persuasion and a few able lawmakers like Sens. Jim Argue of Little Rock and Stephen Bryles of Blytheville.

Historical context also compels us to admit that the work on school funding and equity since the first Supreme Court order in 2002 has been monumental, even if it took successive court orders and much grumbling to bring about. And Petrus also is probably right that the Supreme Court this spring will accept the work and issue a final mandate closing Lake View.

The state will have invested substantially in critical preschool education for the first time — another $40 million a year starting this fall — and more money will be directed to the schools with the poorest and neediest children. Gov. Beebe’s capital budget will direct a little more than $200 million to repair and replace the worst schools, and he implies that he may seek considerably more (if lawmakers don’t blow all the capital improvement funds on local pork projects).

Legislators are entitled to some self-congratulation. Beebe’s style, unlike that of his predecessor, is not to boast much, but he can take a medium-sized bow, too.

But the superlatives are overblown. Teachers the next two years will get smaller percentage raises than the lawmakers granted themselves for their part-time labors. And while legislators were insistent upon setting aside some of the appropriation each of the next two years into a separate category that they described as “enhancement” to show that they were going beyond mere adequacy, they actually did not.

In a world where the words “adequate” and “equal” were held to their definitions, Arkansas schools would be neither adequate nor equal. An examination of the programs at — well, let’s just pick a couple at random, Marianna and Marvell — would produce no objective evaluation of adequate. A comparison with, say, Rogers, would persuade no one that they were within leagues of being equal. But as the president of the Arkansas Education Association says, “this is it.”

Although there were resources for doing more, at this session there will be nothing more. Let us be thankful for simple good works and expect the miracle next time.