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What about the kids? 

After a big start in 2003 and 2004 on school improvement, the legislature seems to be talking mostly about bricks and mortar.

SEN. JIM ARGUE: Leading education fight in Senate.
  • SEN. JIM ARGUE: Leading education fight in Senate.
Remember Lake View? I mean, more than just the name and the vague notion it had something to do with money for schools? Or that there is anything left to do on Lake View other than fix up school buildings? If not, it shouldn’t be much of a surprise. It’s been more than seven months since the state Supreme Court officially let go of the case, and if you’re not one of the unlucky folks who deal with the fallout on a daily basis, it would be easy enough to become a little foggy on all the details. So let us remind you. Yes, the Supreme Court gave its stamp of approval to what the state legislature did in the 2004 special session to make the state’s public school system adequate and equitable. But it was nowhere near a unanimous decision — the vote was 4-3 — and even those of the majority opinion wrote that they still had some reservations about how close to the mark the legislature had gotten. Despite the almost exclusive concentration on school facilities this legislative session, the unfinished work of Lake View isn’t just about buildings. Lawmakers aren’t done making changes, you’re not done paying for it, and odds are decent we’ll all wind up back in court anyway somewhere down the line. First, a brief recap of the Lake View case. It was filed in 1992, and spent a decade winding through the court system. In 2002, the Supreme Court upheld a ruling declaring the state’s education funding system unconstitutional because it wasn’t fair or adequate. It set a deadline of Jan. 1, 2004, for the legislature to fix things, and listed three areas specifically: curriculum (including teachers), facilities and equipment. They didn’t meet the deadline, and the court picked the case up again. With the threat of more specific orders from the justices, the legislature finally settled down to business in the special session a year ago, and passed some major changes to how education is paid for and delivered in Arkansas. Using a consultants’ study as a starting point, they established a base level of funding at $5,400 per child as “adequate,” and provided additional funding for special categories of students, like English language learners and low-income children. The higher a school district’s percentage of low-income students, the more money each poor child generated from the state. The special-category money was the legislature’s answer to the “equitable” requirement. The consultants recommended spending $100 million to provide preschool to low-income children; legislators approved $40 million, implemented over five years. The legislature also raised the minimum salary for beginning teachers to $27,500, a move meant to help poorer districts compete with wealthier ones. Other bills provided financial incentives for teachers who went to work in small, high-poverty districts. Lawmakers passed bills laying out an accountability system that punishes school districts whose students don’t improve, and requiring districts to keep track of their spending in a uniform way. They didn’t touch the facilities and equipment issues in that session, but promised to make them the top priorities of the 2005 regular session. Back in the courtroom, the Supreme Court justices surveyed the work of the legislators, and decided to cut them loose. But in their majority opinion, the justices wrote that the legislators had made good progress, not that they had achieved adequacy and equity. They pointed out that despite the work of a legislative committee on adequacy and a consultants’ study of the subject, no one had yet nailed down a definition of an adequate education. And they made the distinction that while the legislature had passed laws to create new programs, it hadn’t fully funded or implemented all of them, and so hadn’t completely constructed the skeleton of a constitutional educational system. The Arkansas Education Association — the state’s teachers union — argued that the court should hold on to jurisdiction in the case because the issue of teacher salaries still needed work. Other state educational organizations argued for the same thing. And the three dissenting Supreme Court justices pulled no punches in pointing out the shortcomings of lawmakers’ efforts. Justice Tom Glaze predicted more lawsuits in the future. Justice Donald Corbin said he dissented because there was no way to know whether the new changes satisfied the directives of Lake View, since they hadn’t yet been funded or taken effect. It was “simply not the case” that the legislature had complied with Lake View and the schools were now constitutional, he wrote. Talk to some key legislators today, though, and they seem to think Lake View’s pretty well taken care of other than the facilities issue and the ongoing obligation to evaluate the adequacy of state funding. “All in all I think we’re in pretty good shape,” said Sen. Jim Argue, D-Little Rock, chair of the Senate education committee and president pro tem of the Senate. No one has so far tried to undo any of the major legislation of the 2004 special session, and the Senate education committee’s turned down bills to undo some of the smaller provisions, he said. Says Sen. David Bisbee, R-Rogers, another core architect of education changes: “The legislators have done their job — now we just have to see if it works, if educators can pull it off.” But get away from the legislature, and it’s not hard to find someone who’d disagree. “I do think that future lawsuits are a strong possibility,” said Kellar Noggle, head of the Arkansas Association of Educational Administrators. “There will be schools that look at this over the next three or four years an decide it’s not enough or it’s not fair.” He said he hears a lot of complaints from school superintendents about teacher salary disparities. Raising the minimum salary statewide hasn’t helped, he said. “That’s the biggest problem we’ve got,” he said. “When you look at a gap of $13,000 in starting salaries” — the difference in the state-mandated minimum of $27,500 and the near-$40,000 starting salary offered by the Springdale school district — “that’s a huge difference in ability to attract and keep teachers.” Frank Anthony, superintendent of Pine Bluff schools, said that even with a starting salary of about $30,000, his district pays less than three others in Jefferson County. “It hasn’t done anything for the disparity in teachers’ salaries,” he said of the legislature’s minimum-salary increase. He also believes a $4,000 salary supplement for teachers in the neediest school districts isn’t enough to actually lure any educators there. It would take more than that to get most people to make the quality-of-life sacrifices of leaving a more urban, prosperous area, he said. “Maybe we haven’t don’t enough — those problems are tough,” Argue said. “But it deserves some time to play out.” But the facilities issue has dominated the entire legislative landscape. There was no way to talk about allocating large amounts of money for anything else until legislators had some idea of how much would be going to facilities — a number they just got a week ago. “It’s got everything else hung up,” Argue said two days before Sen. Shane Broadway presented the facilities plan. “It’s frustrating the legislature, but believe me, every day I look at ways to accelerate the process.” Broadway, a Saline County Democrat who’s been at the center of the facilities work, said legislators have let other issues go because “everybody knew we had to do facilities first. Once we get past the facilities issue, other things will come back into focus.” So far this session, the only proposal on teacher salaries is a bill from Bisbee to provide a cost-of-living increase in the minimum salary for the next two years. Not that there are easy answers going unused. Both Noggle and Anthony acknowledge a school district’s ability to pay teachers well is directly related to the size of the district and whether it’s growing or losing students. A district like Springdale — large and expanding like kudzu — can afford to pay high salaries because every classroom is filled to the state-allowed maximum. That means Springdale’s paying one teacher salary out of 23 or 25 students’ worth of state funding. Compare that to a small district that’s losing students and may have only 13 or 14 students per class. And with more school consolidation not a remotely realistic possibility, the easiest fix is also the costliest: raise the state-mandated minimum salary thousands of dollars higher. There was a bill filed recently that could take small bites out of the problem. It would provide scholarships of up to $3,000 a year for teachers who want to go back to college to earn certification in a second subject, and award bonuses once they’re teaching both subjects. The second major Lake View issue is curriculum. The legislature last year passed laws mandating high schools offer a beefed-up minimum array of courses. When tiny school districts objected, the legislature suggested distance learning and teacher-sharing to ease the burden. This falls under the not-yet-fully-implemented heading. A bill filed last week would just now establish a commission to study distance learning and make recommendations about the best ways to use it. Nor do all educators assume distance learning will even be a viable way to get instruction to students in rural or low-income school districts. Pine Bluff’s Anthony oversees a district that’s large enough to be a source of distance learning for other Delta school districts. Pine Bluff High has 750 students, and offers eight Advanced Placement classes. But Anthony said he hasn’t been contacted by anyone about forming a distance-learning partnership. And even if he were, Anthony said, he doesn’t believe it’s an effective way to teach kids in high-poverty school districts. “They need hands-on, face-to-face instruction on a daily basis,” Anthony said. “If you’ve got 10 percent to 20 percent of students scoring proficient with regular instruction,” he said, distance learning isn’t going to work. The academic challenges for those students are simply too great, he said. And early childhood education is a huge issue, said Bill Kopsky, head of the Arkansas Public Policy Panel, a non-profit organization that’s advocated on behalf of smaller, lower-income school districts. The adequacy committee’s report recommended $100 million to provide quality preschool for all qualified low-income children; the legislature appropriated $40 million. A bill filed recently by Rep. Roy Dangeau would add another $20 million — paid for by continuing the existing beer tax instead of allowing it to sunset — but it hasn’t yet come up for discussion. The implementation issue is a big one on its own. For every law the legislature passed, the Department of Education has to come up with rules to put it into effect. So far there haven’t been any major public tests of the implementation progress. But the one smaller requirement — that districts account for and report all their athletic expenditures in a uniform way — didn’t pass its first implementation test. Some districts still reported almost no spending on school sports, despite having healthy varsity sports programs. In the wake of that, Rep. Jodie Mahony filed a bill last month to strengthen a law requiring districts to account for all their spending using a uniform accounting system. The new bill would not only require the Department of Education to come up with the system, it also would mandate a minimum amount of yearly training for school officials that deal with tracking expenditures. There’ll be another test coming up at the end of this school year, when districts have to report details of how they spent the state money they received that was earmarked for programs for low-income students. And even legislators who are satisfied with the laws passed in last year’s special session say they realize maintaining an adequate school system will mean increasing spending every two years to, if nothing else, keep up with inflation. Argue said he’s confident the senators on the education committee — a group that won’t change for another four years — has the collective political will to keep the Lake View legislation on track. After that, though, it’s anybody’s guess. No one General Assembly can obligate a future legislature to spend money, so a whole new crop of legislators will be dealing with the behemoth by the end of a decade or so. As for the rest of the 2004 laws, it’s going to take awhile — some say 10 years — to know whether they went far enough. As Judge Collins Kilgore pointed out in his original decision in the Lake View case, in the end, adequacy is measured by results, not by dollars. If students at the lower end of the wealth/achievement scale start catching up with their peers, great. If not, it’s almost a sure thing Arkansas’s school system will find itself back in the courtroom. “I hope over time we’ll begin to see that gap close,” the AAEA’s Noggle said. “If it doesn’t close, somewhere we have missed the boat.”
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