The case provides a useful road map for Kentucky's legislature.
The opinion specifically cited the legislature's additional spending, including a $122 million increase in per-student funding and $456 million from the state's surplus to pay for repairs to dilapidated school buildings. That funding recently raised Arkansas's per-pupil standing among the states reached a very respectable 12th, very likely a historic high.
"We hold that the General Assembly has now taken the required and necessary legislative steps to assure that the schoolchildren of this state are provided an adequate education and a substantially equal educational opportunity," justices said in the unanimous, signed decision.
The case dates back to 1983, when justices declared the public education system unconstitutional, in part because of inequitable funding, and warned that the state must constantly review and revise its efforts.
"Anybody who thinks we're through has missed the point. This is an ever-changing and evolving target that requires constant vigilance," Governor Mike Beebe said.
In the ruling, Justice Robert L. Brown singled out a state law requiring an annual review of what constitutes an adequate education.
"What is especially meaningful to the court is the masters' finding that the General Assembly has expressly shown that constitutional compliance in the field of education is an ongoing task requiring constant study, review and adjustment," Brown wrote.
(PHOTO: Arkansas Attorney General Dustin McDaniel, left, and Gov. Mike Beebe answer questions in the Old Supreme Court Room at the state Capitol in Little Rock on May 31. —Danny Johnston/AP)
"The court has said yes, it's about spending more money and showing your commitment to education, but what's more important is how you spend it," Attorney General Dustin McDaniel said. "It's not just throwing money at a problem. It's having open, public, objective findings on what's the right course."
"This is not a time to say, 'let's forget about education and do something else,'" Beebe said.
Arkansas Education Commissioner (and former Fayette County Superintendent) Ken James said he and other state officials need to make sure that lawmakers understand the need to improve the state's public school system. "The next step, needless to say, is due diligence to make sure that we're continuing on the track to improve the educational process and make sure we don't backslide," James said. "We're not going to remove standards and we're not going to remove those accountability standards."
David Matthews, the attorney for the Rogers school district and the lead lawyer in the case, said he agreed with the court's decision. "I think the time has come for Lake View to end," lead attorney David Matthews said. "I think this definitely ends it."
Little Rock School District attorney Chris Heller said he hopes the Legislature will still address problems he's raised with facilities funding and money for poor students. But Heller said he doesn't think another lawsuit is needed for those fixes. "I think we've made tremendous progress as a result of this case and I think the few remaining concerns we have about education are relatively small compared to what's been accomplished," Heller said.
Sen. Jim Argue, chairman of the Senate Education Committee, said the court's order was a cause for celebration but cautioned that the state should not repeat its mistakes of becoming complacent on education reforms. "Now, we need to stay the course and not retreat because of this accomplishment," said Argue, D-Little Rock. "I think the state's history is one of brief moments of great progress followed by decades of neglect."
- Supreme Court found the Arkansas school system unconstitutional in 1983.
- Legislature devised a system in which money followed the child.
- A new school funding formula based on per-student expenditures was established in 1996 after the now-defunct Lake View School District and others sued the state.
- The court ruled in 2002 that school districts were underfunded and that the money spent was distributed unevenly.
- Legislators approved a number of reforms in 2003.
- Legislature approved reforms in 2004.
- A review by court-appointed masters approved by the court.
- In 2005, the court ruled that the system was still inadequate, and gave the state until Dec. 1, 2006 to address shortfalls in the system.
- Shortly before that deadline, four school districts asked the court to maintain oversight as legislators met in 2007.
This from Education Week (subscription).