Leader Blues

Monday, June 04, 2007

EDITORIALS>>Will legislators still do right?

For the first time in 15 years, Arkansas is not under a court order to improve its schools or the prospect of such an order. The Arkansas Supreme Court, which said it was satisfied and even thrilled with the governmentís progress on public education, relinquished the Lake View case Thursday.

That is good news, but it can be bad news, too. It has taken direct orders from the high court or a trial court to persuade the state legislature and the governor to address the clear mandates of the state Constitution, which is that the government must guarantee an adequate and equal education for all Arkansas children. Without the judicial sword poised above them, will the leaders go back to business as usual, which is to make education the last rather than the first priority of the state?

A Supreme Court order in the Alma school case in 1983 to equalize funding among Arkansas schools produced the big education program that autumn at a special legislative session called by Gov. Bill Clinton.

It produced some new taxes for education, higher standards for schools, and reforms in the distribution of state aid. A 1994 trial court order in the Lake View case produced a constitutional amendment to redirect and equalize school funding. The Supreme Courtís 2002 order to equalize and elevate the schools produced a raft of reforms over five years, as the Supreme Court kept withdrawing its mandate and putting new pressure on lawmakers and the governor. In a few years we will know the real worth of what they all did.

It was the Supreme Courtís persistence in living up to its constitutional duty in the face of political and sometimes popular fury that brought us to this point. It was, as school attorney David Mathews said, a high point in Arkansasí judicial history. For a few years at least, the memory of that devotion to the Constitution should be enough to keep the legislature and the governor on task. Let us hope.