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Laws made and broken 

Did the legislature violate the Lake View court order and its own law in its enactment of a public school budget? The Arkansas Supreme Court will be asked by the Rogers School District to ponder that question officially. The court will be encouraged by Rogers’ attorney, David Matthews, to recall its mandate and re-engage its special masters to review legislative progress on public education. It might even be asked to find legislators in civil contempt, which is pretty much what many of them are. In the meantime, I’m thinking the spirit was clearly violated but that the letter of the law might provide wiggle room. This likely will come down to one of those fine-line things, like whether Bill Clinton committed perjury. You remember: Yes, he lied after swearing before God that he wouldn’t, but it wasn’t about a material fact, so it didn’t count. Here’s the crux: Circuit Judge Collins Kilgore found in the Lake View case, and the Supreme Court affirmed, that since the state Constitution requires a public school system and an adequate one, but does not expressly require all those other things state government provides like colleges and prisons and Medicaid, it is the Legislature’s duty to determine what an adequate public school opportunity comprises, put a pencil to the costs thereof and take that amount off the top of the budget. The old way of determining how much money the state had and trying your dead-level best to give about half of it to schools won’t cut the constitutional mustard, Kilgore and the supremes agreed. Meeting in special session last year to obey the court order, the legislature nobly passed Act 57 dictating that its education committees “shall” meet during every interim between sessions, “as needed,” to redetermine the components of an adequate education. First problem: Those education committees did not meet to redefine adequacy between the end of the special session last year and this year’s regular session. Second problem: Public education was held in the first year of the next biennium to the same per-child distribution of $5,400 as was disbursed last year, rather plainly because that’s all the legislators could afford after they gave budget increases to higher education, prisons and Medicaid. That is to say the legislature, after just one year, reverted to its old and illegal ways of backing into a public education budget rather than boldly marching into it. Does the legislature have a defensive leg to stand on? Yes, actually. It can say that not even a school year had passed between the special session’s enactment of the $5,400-per-child budget and the regular session’s consideration of a new budget. It can say the court also ordered the legislature to monitor school expenditures and demand accountability. No such reasonable monitoring could possibly have been conducted, or reasonable accountability demanded, in less than a year. The per-child distribution will rise in the second year. Meanwhile, more than a hundred million dollars will be spent on facilities improvements and expansion of pre-kindergarten programs. Yes, Act 57 requires an interim redefinition of an “adequate” education, but only “as needed,” and in this case it wasn’t needed. This is what we pay Supreme Court judges in the six figures for. Two points work against the legislative defense. One is that for anyone to receive the same amount of money next year as this is to go backward, especially considering energy costs. The second has to do with all those legislators who talked openly about how we’d done enough for public schools for the time being because the state had other pressing needs that had been neglected too long. That those words were well-intentioned won’t make them taste much better.
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