Faced with a judicial imperative to make a quantum leap in the quality — and equality — of Arkansas public schools, the legislature did the minimum to squeak by. The Arkansas Supreme Court now faces a test. Will it take the unprecedented step of reopening the closed Lake View school finance case for a second time?
The justices should. A recent financial accounting before a legislative committee illustrated how little lawmakers were willing to sacrifice in the name of education.
Oh, sure, the state is spending more dollars on schools. But costs rise inexorably. Teacher pay in vast swaths of the state remains uncompetitive, particularly in the places most in need. Some standards have been increased. But these new standards are mostly unfunded mandates on local districts. Legislators hope they force consolidations they were too cowardly to legislate.
There’s no way to explain how the absence of an increase in per-pupil state support next year amounts to progress. Or how putting down 5 percent on a $2 billion school construction bill is adequate.
With normal growth, one-time money and starvation of other parts of government, the legislature made a pretense of doing something for schools. But the legislature actually eroded the state’s revenue base, about half of which goes to schools.
In all, legislation that directly affected revenue cut state income an average of $10 million a year. The repeal of the income tax surcharge cost another $53 million a year. Failure to revive the estate tax meant a loss of another $10 million a year (and lots more when a Walton or Stephens, etc., dies). The legislature also committed to giving away $20 million or more a year in corporate welfare to lure manufacturing plants. It allowed local governments to rob school property taxes of tens of millions to build sporting good stores, shopping centers, movie theaters and golf course developments. It gave the billionaire Walton family a multi-million-dollar tax break on their art purchases. In all, this legislature cut state revenue by some $100 million a year. In time, the figure will grow as Tax Increment Finance districts proliferate.
Had the Supreme Court retained jurisdiction of the Lake View school case, the legislature would have felt pressure to do more. This certain knowledge might inspire the justices to put special masters back to work for several months to grade the legislators’ work. They deserve, at best, an “Incomplete,” not a social promotion.
Justice Donald Corbin and Tom Glaze seem ready to take control of the case. Past pronouncements indicate Chief Justice Jim Hannah is a longshot to join them. Three of the other justices, it happens, have ties to the governor, who opposes reopening the case. They include two Huckabee-appointed justices, Betty Dickey and Special Justice Carol Dalby. Justice Jim Gunter tapped into the Huckabee network in his election last year. That leaves Justice Robert Brown, a cautious judge who is up for election next year. Judicial fiats that could lead to tax increases are not presumed to be politically popular. Circuit Judge Collins Kilgore, who wrote the Lake View decision, learned that in losing to Gunter last year.
If you’re counting, it takes four votes to reopen the case. We can see two so far.