Friday, May 27, 2011

EDITORIAL >> Decision lacks logic

Federal courts are known for an excess of deliberateness, but District Judge Brian Miller will not be accused of it. Without warning, he threw a giant monkey wrench into the operations of the three school districts of Pulaski County. Rash is a better word than deliberate for his order, which pretty much ends state desegregation aid for the schools—immediately.

The judge was expected to assign unitary or partially unitary status to the North Little Rock and Pulaski County Special School Districts, meaning that they had about fully desegregated and no longer needed court monitoring. That he did, sort of, but he went much further. Without notice, without a hearing and without evidence to support it, he released the state from its obligation to provide most of its desegregation aid to the schools and signaled his intention to release it from the rest, including support for magnet schools and majority-to-minority transfers among schools of the three districts.

Everyone, including the state, was taken aback by the ruling, but state officials—well, the attorney general and the governor—were thrilled by it. It will mean a windfall of funds for the state starting July 1—an alarming crisis for the three school districts, their children and teachers, but a bonanza for the state government.

Attorneys for the Little Rock and Pulaski County school districts asked the judge to quickly stay those parts of his order until they are appealed to the 8th Circuit Court of Appeals and it has ruled. When that failed, they appealed directly to the 8th Circuit to stay the order while the appeal is settled.

The new school year is a few weeks away, pupil assignment plans are already made, teacher contracts are signed and suddenly adjusting for the loss of more than $70 million will require wrenching changes. The Little Rock school attorney said it might require wholesale teacher layoffs and an end to the popular and successful magnet schools.

The judge’s ruling was bizarre. He took over the 25-year-old school desegregation case recently. Did he realize that the court-approved settlement adopted in 1989 anticipated permanent funding of majority-to-minority transfers and support for magnet schools? They were not supposed to be transitional and temporary.

Of course, the court may determine that they are ineffective or that times have eliminated the need for state funding and amend the settlement. But it should be done only after those issues have been researched and argued thoroughly. At any rate, it should not be done so abruptly that it disrupts the education of thousands of children. We hope the 8th Circuit will realize that, but a new breed populates the appellate courts. Deliberateness and established law are not in vogue.

Attorney General Dustin McDaniel, a former lawmaker from northeast Arkansas who is preparing for another statewide race—for governor this time—jumped on the order. All desegregation aid to the schools in Pulaski County should be stopped immediately, he said. They have plenty of money and it will cause no disruption for students or teachers, he said. That is easy for him to say.

It will be a popular decision around the state. Legislators have demagogued the desegregation issue for years, saying that the poor taxpayers in the rest of the Arkansas were supporting the schools in Pulaski County and thus depriving their own schools. Throwing around figures like $70 million in desegregation aid seems to prove the point.

McDaniel fed it with a statement about the high spending per child in the three school districts, which is above the average that is spent per child in the rest of the state. But he didn’t explain why that was so. It is because Pulaski County levies much higher property taxes to support the schools than do nearly all the other school districts in the state and they have a larger tax base. In other words, people in Pulaski County sacrifice more for their schools. They have to because the state formula for distributing state aid to the schools automatically gives much less per child to the Pulaski County, especially Little Rock, schools because it is assumed that they can support their education better out of their own pockets. We cannot quarrel with that because the Constitution requires the state to guarantee good education for all children and see to it that they are treated equally by the state regardless of where they are from.

But the subsidization issue is the opposite from what McDaniel suggests. The taxpayers of Pulaski County—everyone, not just home and business owners—subsidize the schools in the rest of the state, not vice versa.

A high percentage of Arkansas’ sales, personal and corporate income taxes, cigarette and other excise taxes comes from Pulaski County. Nearly half of all those taxes are distributed among the public schools of the state. Relatively little of it is returned to the Little Rock and Pulaski County schools but instead supports the schools in places like Mississippi County, McDaniel’s base. The special desegregation aid returns some of it to schools in the county where the money arose.