Columns » Max Brantley

It's now or never

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The state Supreme Court did the right thing the wrong way. Last week, the Court voted 4-3 to reopen the Lake View case. Special masters will review the work of the legislature in meeting the court’s 2002 order to provide Arkansas children with an adequate and equal education. The Court would have saved itself a lot of criticism and political demagoguery if it had retained a supervisory role from the outset. Instead, it relied on the legislature to do the right thing. The legislature failed entirely the first time. It has undeniably done more this go-round, but dozens of school districts argue, with some evidence, that more should be done. The argument of an inadequate legislative response was persuasive enough that a bare majority of the court decided to review the facts now, even if it meant looking stupid legally. Credit Justice Bob Brown, who faces re-election next year, for being brave enough to risk criticism for reopening a twice-closed case. Credit, too, appointed Justice Betty Dickey, who was blistered for judicial activism by her former boss and the man who appointed her, Gov. Mike Huckabee. Justices Donald Corbin and Tom Glaze led the charge for review. It makes good sense. Better to review now than wait another decade for this 25-year-old case to wind through the courts again. The court hasn’t gone to legislating yet. It merely asked masters to review the legislature’s actions. Do they pass constitutional muster, as defined by the court? If they don’t, the court could order more work. It is unlikely to order specific remedies. We know this much. The legislature did not put schools first in arriving at a state budget in 2005. First, last and always the legislature fed its members’ hunger for pork. The legislature also failed to provide any increase in financial support for students this year and only a tiny increase next year. Some schools will suffer declining state support, on account of a smaller enrollment. Remember that they won’t necessarily have fewer staff members on account of new academic requirements. The most obvious shortcoming was the legislature’s rejection of its own expert study on school building needs. The $2.3 billion price was too high for lawmakers to swallow, so they came up with barely 5 percent of the tab over the next two years. Political ramifications? Republican gubernatorial candidate Asa Hutchinson immediately made court “activism” a whipping boy. He knows his base well. They would rather have sorry schools than pay more taxes. Attorney General Mike Beebe, the likely Democratic nominee for governor, defended the legislature. His loss is no big deal. He can continue to argue that the legislature complied with the court ruling. Since this has effectively been the motto of Arkansas education for better than a century – We Done Enuff – it’s unlikely to harm him. Gov. Mike Huckabee, running now for president, is in a slightly awkward spot. Before, he could claim that he led the legislature to a school fix without a tax increase. Never mind that he once said the legislature failed on consolidation. Never mind that he did little in the 2005 session. Now he must explain why his own former chief legal counsel hints the legislature and the executive didn’t get the job done. As ever, if there’s a real price to pay, the children will pay it.

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