The Arkansas Supreme Court made a couple of large decisions recently. It got one right. The judges were unanimously correct in reversing a circuit court ruling that the state Freedom of Information Act is unconstitutional. The lower court said in a public-meeting case that the Act was too vague and overbroad. The Supreme Court said that any changes needed in the law could be made by the legislature. "The FOIA does not attempt to give an exact description of every conceivable fact situation that might give rise to the application of the FOIA," the court said. "It is left to the judiciary to give effect to the intent of the legislature ... This court liberally construes the FOIA to accomplish its broad and laudable purpose that public business be performed in an open and public manner."
The Court erred in holding that the state cannot take excess property-tax revenue from wealthy school districts and use it to subsidize poorer districts. The state requires a minimum 25-mill property tax for every district, but because of varying property values, the tax produces more revenue in some districts than others. The state also requires a minimum expenditure for each pupil. If the 25-mill tax doesn't raise enough money to reach that figure, the state makes up the difference. If the tax produces more than enough, the state wants to send that excess to poorer districts.
The thrust of the education-reform movement in Arkansas over the last decade has been to equalize opportunity for all students. Nonetheless, a four-member court majority held that rich districts can keep their excess revenue. In a dissent joined by two others, Chief Justice Jim Hannah wrote:
"The majority nullifies ten years of difficult and painstaking work diligently undertaken by the General Assembly, the Department of Education, the Attorney General, and the Governor, to provide this state with a constitutional school-funding system. ... The majority leaves us with a public-school-funding system dependent upon the wealth of the district, which this court has declared to be unconstitutional."