Columns » Max Brantley

Hold your applause

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Nominal progressives cheered Gov. Mike Huckabee for coming to the dance for proposed Amendment 1, which alters the state's school finance scheme.

No standing ovation is required. Huckabee had the confidence-building company of solid Republicans as well as the reactionary Ron Russell, head of the Arkansas State Chamber of Commerce. Business favors this cheap solution. It pre-empts any talk of the vast inequities in our taxing system, particularly the ridiculously low property taxes paid by farmers and timber companies.

The school situation is, at its core, quite simple. The state has more than 300 school districts of vastly different property wealth and varying degrees of enthusiasm for taxation. Per pupil spending, though augmented by the state, varied dramatically.

A judge ruled the system unconstitutional and gave the state two years to craft a solution. Such court-ordered crisis management happened once before. In 1983, the result was a revolution in Arkansas education, powered by Bill Clinton's sales tax increase.

Neither the legislature nor then-Governor Jim Guy Tucker were so bold in 1995. They had three simple choices, the first two worthy, but unacceptably progressive: 1) pump in more money to bring the poor school districts up; 2) reduce the number of school districts by consolidation.

Politicians chose Door No. 3--tinker with the existing formula. Thus was born proposed Amendment 1, a resource-pooling idea that Robin Hood would admire. Under it, all districts must contribute proceeds from a 25-mill property tax to the state, which will redistribute the local money along with state dollars. The potential problems:

•Sponsors promise the money will be distributed equally on a per capita basis, but the amendment doesn't require it. The legislature will decide how the money is split.

•The amendment doesn't define the minimum tax millage. Would it count only proceeds from a 25-mill tax levied solely for maintenance and operations or would the definition count, as it does under current statutes, debt service and construction millages and state subsidies? The amendment doesn't say. The wrong answer from a court could require more local tax increases than the handful now expected under the amendment.

•The amendment not only doesn't guarantee equity, it provides constitutional protection for inequity. The amendment allows "funding variations" among districts in the name of enhanced education. In other words, districts that invoke educational aims would seem to be able to spend more money per student than their neighbors. The amendment gives the legislature power to curb excessive spending, but it's not a constitutional requirement.

Some educators have quietly raised these and other concerns. They are reluctant to speak out, mainly for lack of viable alternatives. And the governor has articulated a powerful populist argument: Would voters rather the legislature or the courts run the schools?

The amendment may deserve approval, but not on account of Huckabee's argument. Any student of government in Arkansas knows equity in education has come only after the coercive thump of a judicial gavel. Left to its parochial whims, the General Assembly invariably creates inequities rather than cures them.

Print headline: "Hold your applause" September 27, 1996.

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