Columns » Ernest Dumas

A clear failure

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For most people in government, and perhaps most of us as well, it is the idea of a constitution and of a “government of laws” that excites them. Enforcing or actually abiding by the constitution is inconvenient and not worth doing. Constitutions are to be honored in speeches on patriotic occasions but otherwise the best labor is to see how adroitly their specific parts can be evaded. So it is that Gov. Huckabee and such lawmakers as were willing to talk were outraged that two special masters in the Lake View school case had found that the lawmakers had failed this year to follow the state Constitution when they provided for the education of the 450,000 children in their care. The good masters, a pair of former Supreme Court justices, one retired and the other a distinguished lawyer who had served as chief justice by appointment, documented as exhaustively as it could be done just how the legislature, by ineptness, confusion or some exercise of collective will, had skirted the state Constitution’s absolute requirement that children in Arkansas be furnished an adequate education and one that was pretty much equal from one student to another no matter where they lived The state had paid handsomely for an elaborate blueprint of what an adequate education in Arkansas would be, and the Supreme Court had spelled out what equality would look like legally. When it made school laws and appropriations for the next two years, the masters concluded, the legislature this year avoided both ends. It did not get much help from the governor, who pretty much got out of the way on school issues and then blessed the legislature's work. While the masters made little mention of the governor, Huckabee, or at least his spokesman, howled as if the report was a personal attack on the governor. What stands out about the masters’ 86-page report to the Supreme Court is the mind-numbingly exact recitation of the workings of the school laws and educational appropriations and how they sometimes perversely did the opposite of guaranteeing adequacy and equality and the opposite of what legislative leaders publicly said they were intending to do. The two monumental failures, which legislators and other state witnesses could offer virtually no defense at hearings this summer, were freezing the state foundation aid to schools at $5,400 per child this school year, the same as last, and providing for a tiny increase in 2007 and then appropriating only $120 million for school facilities when the legislature had itself documented a need for more than $2 billion. The legislators’ defense at the hearings was that they were still studying all those things and coming up with more adequacy data and a master plan for improving wretched school facilities. With unaccustomed directness the masters said, enough studies! In their first report to the Supreme Court in 2004, the masters simply recited the legislature’s work on school funding in response to the court’s order holding the school system unconstitutional and compared it with the order. This time, all the details of the legislature’s work became evidence of the officials’ collective decision that they slack off on school improvement. In 2003, the legislature enacted and Huckabee signed a noble-sounding law, Act 57, which embraced education as the state’s continuing No. 1 priority. The needs of an adequate school program would always be put first before the state spent anything. But once the Supreme Court officially took notice of that law, the modest sales tax increase, steeper funding for the schools in 2004-05 and the legislature’s stated intention to deal with the school facilities in a big way and pronounced all of them a good step in the right direction, legislators decided they could go back to business as usual and drop education to a much lower priority, the masters said. “They seemed satisfied that the state Supreme Court had approved what they had done in 2003 and that they could simply rest on the laurel bestowed by the court when it released the mandate after our original report.” As evidence of that priority, Huckabee announced last month that he would ask the voters in December to give the Highway Department eternal authority to borrow money to build highways and to borrow another $150 million or so for new construction on college campuses, where there has been more building the past 15 years than in all the school districts of Arkansas combined. Both bond deals could take money away from the schools. Though it was an obvious solution, no such deal has been proposed for public school buildings. It is facetious to argue that schools are No. 1, as the Constitution mandates. And this is not a cataclysmic thing for the taxpayers despite the fear spread by the governor and legislators. They misspent tens of millions of tax dollars on local re-election projects — in violation of the Constitution by any fair judgment — and left another $350 million or more on the table that could have been devoted to the schools. Huckabee and some other leaders prefer to bash the courts because the justices errantly rested their faith in the legislature and then withdrew it. Better that they keep their eye on the prize, the Constitution, and do its bidding as they all swore to do.

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