Not long ago I allied with the state Legislature on the unending school reform case, which, I’ll wager, is soon to become even more unending. That was when the issue was procedural and even extended to the delicate balance of power between the judicial and legislative branches.
But then those matters were settled, albeit wrongly. So, the focus turned to merit and substance. At that point the Legislature found itself defenseless. It’s almost certain that the Arkansas Supreme Court will in a matter of weeks declare school funding in the state unconstitutional all over again, a victim of legislative relaxation. Recent hearings before two special masters appointed by the court appeared to leave no other option.
Let’s chronicle the matter from the very recent background to the current state of affairs.
The Supreme Court ruled last year that the Legislature had done enough to make public schools adequateand equitable as required under the Lake View order. The court actually praised the Legislature, and closed the long-running case. That was in spite of the fact that the most expensive phase of the court-ordered reform, upgrading and equalizing of facilities, awaited. A study and inventory were under way.
The Legislature came to town in January liberated for a change, anxious to spend money without the justices breathing down their necks about public schools.
Legislators pretty much ceded school funding and a facilities solution to five privately meeting leaders — Sens. Jim Argue of Little Rock, Dave Bisbee of Rogers and Shane Broadway of Bryant and House Speaker Bill Stovall of Quitman along with veteran Rep. Jodie Mahony of El Dorado.
Those five recommended, and other legislators passively agreed, to phase in facilities construction with greater emphasis on dilapidated buildings in poor areas than crowding problems in prosperous growing areas. They also backed into a general revenue budget for schools, insisting on first adding money to colleges, human service and prisons. Public schools ended up with no more money per-pupil this year than last.
These legislative leaders also were forced by legislative politics to acquiesce to frenzied greed, particularly among 15 or so petty power-playing senators. Tens of millions in unencumbered funds were divvied up for local projects of varying value and absurdity.
The growing Rogers School District dispatched its ever-ready lawyer, David Matthews, back to the Supreme Court to allege that the Legislature had abandoned school reform at the very first opportunity and to ask the court to reopen the case.
It seemed plain that there was no case to reopen, and that Rogers’ contention, no matter how compelling, needed to start back in Pulaski Circuit Court with a fresh lawsuit, one that would run years. Lo and behold, the Supreme Court voted narrowly to reopen a case that didn’t exist. These judicial activists reappointed their masters to make a fresh report.
The masters just completed their hearings. The evidence was one-sided. The Legislature was supposed to have done a study prior to January’s session to update its definition of adequate education. It didn’t. In getting no more money per-student, some school districts actually were set back. Pressing facilities needs in growth areas were left unattended. Legislators spent money on street lights for Bigelow and football fields for schools without football teams.
The masters will make their report Oct. 1. After that the question likely will become not what the Supreme Court will rule, but what the justices will presume to do about their ruling.
They could simply declare school funding unconstitutional, choosing not to test the separation of powers by ordering any particular gubernatorial or legislative action. Even then, any taxpayer could sue to declare the entire state budget an illegal exaction. Rogers could ask the court to declare the governor and legislators in contempt if they failed to act.
But I’m getting too far ahead. And you probably should keep in mind that these predictions come from one who didn’t think the court could, or would, reopen a closed case.