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A few days ago, a small-school champion who opposes further consolidation told us that every legislator she’d talked to expected the Arkansas Supreme Court to find the legislature’s efforts at school reform inadequate, and to order further improvement that would very likely include more consolidation. Her prediction moved nearer reality on Monday, when the special masters appointed by the court to evaluate the school improvements enacted by the legislature issued their report: They were blunt: Not good enough. The Court will have the final say, but it’s unlikely the justices will reject the findings of the masters. Another round of education reform appears to be on the agenda, and perhaps quite soon. On point after point, the masters agreed with the school districts who challenged the legislature’s plan: “From the largely uncontradicted evidence presented by the [districts], we must conclude that the state has not lived up to the promise made by the 84th General Assembly Regular and Extraordinary Sessions of 2003 to make education the state’s first priority. Without exception, the school superintendents who testified before us were of the opinion that regression in state-aid funding, costly unfunded new education mandates, and the General Assembly’s failure to take inflation sufficiently into account had adversely affected their efforts to provide an ‘adequate’ education to their students.” The legislature’s decision to freeze per-student funding for the 2005-2006 school year at the same level as the year before is “difficult to defend,” the masters said. “Rather than seeking to address the needs of the schools and the effort to achieve equal opportunities for all students across the state to obtain an adequate education … the discussions were about how to spend available funds.” Regarding consolidation, the masters said that despite evidence “that serious inefficiencies continue to result from our having more than 250 school districts, the issue has been ignored or forgotten by the General Assembly.” They added that Gov. Mike Huckabee, once a strong advocate for greater efficiency through consolidation, “is no longer actively participating in this case.” The masters were not without suggestions for meeting the needs. The state has a $107 million surplus from the last fiscal year that could be appropriated in a special session, they said, and the Department of Finance and Administration predicts a $180 million surplus for the present biennium. “If those predictions hold true, and if the General Assembly lives up to its stated obligation to fund education first [that is, if legislators don’t spend the surplus on tax refunds and pork-barrel projects], the needs of Arkansas’s children may well be served.” Straight talk, but hopeful.
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