Friday, November 30, 2012

EDITORIAL >> High court drops bomb

Surprise of surprises, the Arkansas Supreme Court reopened the 20-year-old school-equality debate by favoring wealthy school districts in what had been until this week an obscure little dispute between two school districts and the state Department of Education.

How far-reaching the decision will be is subject to debate, but Chief Justice Jim Hannah and two other dissenting justices left no room for conjecture.

“The state’s carefully crafted constitutional system of state-funded public education is obliterated by the majority’s decision,” Justice Hannah wrote. Retiring Justice Robert L. Brown, who wrote much of the judicial law in the landmark school cases the past 10 years, was equally mournful.

“Today’s decision,” his opinion began, “takes us back twenty-nine years to a time when a student’s public education was based on the property wealth of that student’s school district.”

The rhetoric in all three dissenting opinions may be a little overheated, because even with the court’s surprising 4-to-3 decision the system maintains a good deal more equity among the state’s schools than once was the case. But there is no doubt that the decision violates the principle that underpins three decades of judicial striving to bring equality to the funding of public education in Arkansas. It was the Supreme Court that stood steadfast in decision after decision that any school-finance system that left the quality of a child’s education to the whims of local wealth was unconstitutional. Now the four-judge majority on the Supreme Court says that need not necessarily be so.

Of course, Supreme Court personnel have changed since 2003, when the legislature finally got around to complying with the court’s stern orders that it must assure every child in the state an equal opportunity regardless of whether the child lives in a district with considerable property wealth or very little. Only three of the seven justices who rendered the last decisions in the cases known as Lake View are still on the court, and two of the three strongly objected strenuously to the majority’s holding.

The dispute is over the wording of a 2003 statute that fixed the formula for distributing state aid so that combined state and local taxes would equalize the funding for schools regardless of any school district’s ability to raise local funds. When the dispute between the state Education Department and the school districts of Eureka Springs and Fountain Lake arose three years ago, it became clear that the statute was confusing and could be read a couple of ways. The legislature didn’t repair the wording last year, and now a trial judge and a narrow majority of the Supreme Court have sided with the two school districts, which have a large amount of property wealth to tax to support their relatively small enrollments.

School-aid formulas have always been nightmarishly complicated, and this one is no exception. A constitutional amendment adopted in 1996 required every school district in Arkansas to levy a minimum property tax of 26 mills. The proceeds of the 26 mills in each district goes each year to the state, which redistributes it among the schools, along with an allotment of state taxes, to equalize spending on public school children, as the state’s 1874 Constitution seems to require.

But the 26 mills from both Fountain Lake and Eureka Springs each year produce more than the expenditure per child that the state says is required to furnish a suitable education. They want the extra money to be returned to them rather than redistributed to other schools, and they claim that the vague wording of a key sentence in the 2003 statute guarantees it to them so that they can enhance the education of their own children. A majority of the Supreme Court agreed with them that this is exactly what the sentence does.

The dissenting justices acknowledge that the statute can be read that way, or another way, but that that interpretation contradicts the doctrine of every Supreme Court order back to the landmark Alma v. Dupree case in 1983, which began the long struggle to equalize funding, as well as the intent of Amendment 74 of 1996 and the legislature’s clear goal when it enacted funding laws to implement the court orders and Amendment 74.

Right now, the decision affects a relatively small amount of money from two school districts, but next year or 10 years from now, the stakes may be far greater and we may be headed down the slope on the other side of the peak that it took so long and so much bitter struggle to scale. Some years from now there will have to be still another lawsuit to force Arkansas to comply with the Constitution and give children from Lake View to Eureka Springs an equal chance.

Gov. Beebe and the attorney general may persuade the majority to reconsider the decision. If not, the legislature needs to fix the law this winter. Lawyers may need the work, but let’s don’t fight that epic battle again.