Arkansas court: State failing its children

Posted: Wednesday, December 04, 2002

LITTLE ROCK, Ark. -- Arkansas has failed its 450,000 public school children by not devoting enough money to schools and distributing the money unfairly, the state Supreme Court said Thursday.

The justices gave the Arkansas Legislature 13 months to develop an adequate school funding formula. The state now spends $1.7 billion a year on education, with its 310 school districts adding more funds.

Public school students are entitled to a ''general, suitable and efficient'' education system and the state has failed to provide one, the justices said in a case that, in various forms, goes back decades.

The justices upheld a lower court's ruling that the school funding system violates the equal protection clause of the state constitution.

The court did not order specific changes. Some experts have said Arkansas would have to spend up to $1 billion more a year to fulfill suggestions laid down by a Pulaski County judge, Collins Kilgore, in a May 2001 decision.

The court upheld much of what Kilgore ordered, but did hold that he went too far in ordering the creation of preschool programs.

''We do not agree ... that the courts of this state can mandate preschool education as an essential component of an adequate education,'' the justices wrote. ''That is for the General Assembly and the school districts to decide.''

The Arkansas Legislature opens its next session Jan. 13. The justices said it would give legislators until Jan. 1, 2004, to provide more money for education and find a better way to distribute the funds to districts.

The decision Thursday was the third time in the last 20 years that the state's school funding formula was declared unconstitutional. Experts had said it could take between $400 million and $1 billion in new money annually to meet Kilgore's mandate -- the bulk of which was upheld by the higher court.

Gov. Mike Huckabee called a news conference to discuss the ruling. The state attorney general's office did not immediately return telephone calls seeking comment. Plaintiffs' attorneys said they had not read the ruling and would not be able to comment on it immediately.

Last year, Kilgore had ruled the state had done little to address basic inequities since the state Supreme Court declared the system unconstitutional in 1983.

Following the 1983 decision, then-Gov. Bill Clinton formed a commission that made recommendations that the Legislature later adopted as Arkansas' first statewide education standards. The Legislature also increased the state sales tax, and Clinton made basic teacher testing a condition for teacher raises.

But the Lake View School District filed suit in 1992, contending the funding system still allowed wide disparities between wealthy and poor school districts.

Kilgore's predecessor, now a state Supreme Court justice, declared the system inadequate in 1994 and gave the state two years to narrow the gap.

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