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Court Gives Ultimatum to Ark. Schools

November 22, 2002

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LITTLE ROCK, Ark. (AP) _ Arkansas has failed its 450,000 public school children by not devoting enough money to schools and distributing the money unfairly, the state Supreme Court said Thursday.

The justices gave the Legislature until Jan. 1, 2004, to develop an adequate school funding formula. The state now spends $1.7 billion a year on education, with its 310 school districts adding more funds.

Public school students are entitled to a ``general, suitable and efficient″ education system, and the state has failed to provide one, the justices said in a case that, in various forms, goes back decades.

Gov. Mike Huckabee said the ruling would require a ``total revamping″ of the education funding system.

``We’ve got our work cut out for us,″ he said.

The justices upheld a lower court’s ruling that the school funding system violates the equal protection clause of the state constitution.

The high court referred to the state’s ``abysmal rankings″ in key national education indicators _ last in education expenditures, 49th in adult high school graduates, below the national average in standardized tests in math and reading, near the bottom among states in teacher pay.

The court did not order specific changes. Some experts have said Arkansas would have to spend up to $1 billion more a year to fulfill suggestions laid down by Pulaski County Judge Collins Kilgore in May 2001.

The court upheld much of what Kilgore ordered but said he went too far in ordering the creation of preschool programs.

Last week, Huckabee proposed a five-eighths percent sales tax increase that would, among other things, provide $113 million in additional revenue for public schools. He said Thursday that it wasn’t clear how much more money would be needed to comply with the court order.

The decision Thursday was the third time in 20 years that the state’s school funding formula was declared unconstitutional.

``It’s obvious the court wants this case to end,″ said Jim Pitcock, a spokesman for Attorney General Mark Pryor. ``It looks like the end is in sight and the general assembly has some work to do.″

Plaintiffs’ attorneys said they had not read the ruling and couldn’t comment.

Last year, Kilgore ruled the state had done little to address basic inequities since the state Supreme Court declared the system unconstitutional in 1983.

Following that 1983 decision, the Legislature adopted Arkansas’ first statewide education standards and increased the state sales tax. Then-Gov. Bill Clinton made basic teacher testing a condition for teacher raises.

But a 1994 court ruling found that the system was inadequate because wide disparities remained between wealthy and poor school districts.

The state changed its funding system, and voters in 1996 approved a statewide standard for operating and maintaining schools. The state Supreme Court held that even those steps hadn’t solved the inequity.

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