Columns » Ernest Dumas

The legislature failed

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The state proved one point in the Lake View school case last week beyond a reasonable doubt. With enough money you can hire an expert to tell you anything you want to hear. The testimony that the state's chief expert gave to the masters examining the accomplishments of the legislature and the governor this winter was that they had leapfrogged an entire century in one bound and had brought Arkansas schools from the 19th century to the 21st. On another day with another paymaster, the experts might have deplored the lawmakers' work. It is hard to forget the words of Dr. Ray Simon, director of the state Education Department, in a television interview on the beginning of school in 2001. He said a child entering school that week stood a better chance of getting a good education in Arkansas than in any other state in America. Down at the courthouse or in depositions and under oath the same complex Simon was admitting egregious failures by the Arkansas school system. The trial judge and the Supreme Court cited his candid if reluctant testimony in holding that Arkansas schools were among the worst in America and fell far short of the constitutional requirement that every child be offered a suitable, equal and efficient education. The masters have the impossible task of separating such foolish bravado as the hired experts offered from the facts and giving the state Supreme Court a good account of how well the legislature and Gov. Huckabee complied with its order of 17 months ago to provide the money and means to give every child the schooling he or she deserves. No one in government, including lawmakers and the governor, is yet sure what they did. Under the timetable prescribed by the Supreme Court in 2002, the legislature was supposed to pass the laws in the spring of 2003 and the state Education Department was supposed to have written the enabling rules and implemented them by now. That way, we might find a way by now to measure whether a kid in Lake View or Holly Grove was getting the same opportunity as a child at Fayetteville or Little Rock. But the legislature and the governor felt unprepared and Huckabee didn't call the legislature into session until December 2003, three weeks before a refurbished education system was to have been in place. But one judgment is unassailable, and anyone will be able to prove it on the first day of school this fall by driving 50 miles in any direction from the Capitol, or even a few blocks to a third-grade classroom packed with poor children. The educational opportunities that kids will be tendered will not be equal or suitable to their needs. The legislature did not comply with the Supreme Court's decision. Oh, the legislature's work was heroic in the sense that it was more than most of us expected and more than previous assemblies had done. For the first time, the legislature voted to close a few tiny schools directly enacted a law distributing money a little (but not much) more closely related to need than before, stiffened requirements for high school course offerings, authorized some pre-kindergarten programs in poor schools and raised a fair amount of money, although it was not the largest tax increase in the state's history as the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette keeps saying. The money it raised is less than half what an adequacy study ordered by the legislature itself said was the minimum that would be needed. The Supreme Court said that it would not again accept the modest steps that the legislature had taken each time in the past that the court has ordered the state to meet its constitutional duty to children. "Bare and minimal sufficiency does not translate into equal educational opportunity," the Supreme Court had said in 1983, but that still was the standard that the state tried to meet in the legislative session that followed - one that enacted a bigger tax increase than this one, by the way. The legislature simply has not complied with the Supreme Court's order that it see that children did not go to school in decrepit buildings without good equipment and supplies. It voted to spend $10 million to see how much it would cost should another legislature some day decide to comply with the order and prescribed some rules in case the state ever complied. It raised teacher salaries significantly, maybe to pretty near the regional average, but otherwise provided little or nothing to expand programs or to meet the special needs of tens of thousands of small children failed by the system every year because they are in large class settings where they do not learn to read and write and do simple math. Many, perhaps most, school districts will find it impossible even with a modest infusion of new money for teacher raises, to supply the programs the Supreme Court said had to be offered to children, wherever they were. The legislature did do this. It passed a law to make Arkansas kids the most thoroughly and mindlessly tested in America so that we might chronicle the certain failure of its work.

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