LITTLE ROCK — A recent ruling by the Arkansas Supreme Court has cast doubt on whether equality is still a goal in funding public schools in the state, Attorney General Dustin McDaniel and Gov. Mike Beebe argued Monday in separate filings with the court.
McDaniel filed a petition for rehearing in the case in which the court ruled Nov. 29 that school districts that receive property tax revenue in excess of the state-mandated school funding level can keep the money.
Beebe filed a motion asking the court to allow him to submit an amicus brief also arguing for a rehearing.
The governor and attorney general want the court to reconsider its 4-3 decision in a lawsuit filed by the Fountain Lake and Eureka Springs school districts. The court agreed with the districts that they do not have to surrender to the state Department of Education money they received through a statewide 25-mill tax in excess of the mandated level of funding for public schools.
The school districts have seven days to respond. Eugene Sayre, attorney for the districts, said Monday that McDaniel was just repeating arguments his office has already made in the case.
For most districts in the state the 25-mill tax, also known as the URT, or Uniform Rate of Tax, falls short of the mandated school funding amount, so the state makes up the difference. A few districts’ URT revenue exceeds the funding amount, and those districts had been required to hand over the excess funds to the Department of Education before the court’s ruling last month.
In his petition for rehearing, McDaniel said that before the Nov. 29 ruling, school funding in Arkansas was subject to the controls of adequacy and equity, but "the court’s opinion strongly suggests that equity no longer constitutes an independent limit on school funding, but that so long as adequacy is provided then equity will be satisfied as well."
If that is the court’s intent, McDaniel argued, then the court should state explicitly that it is overturning language in the Dupree v. Alma School District case of the 1980s and that Lake View case that began in 1992 and was resolved in 2007. McDaniel said that in those cases the court established that educational opportunities for all students must be substantially equal and that differences in funding between school districts must have a rational basis.
Conversely, if the court wants to uphold its Alma and Lake View rulings, it should state how much of a funding imbalance between districts is acceptable, McDaniel argued.
"These questions and the other issues raised by the court’s decision are too big for vague answers," McDaniel said in the filing.
McDaniel also asked the court to explain its statement that URT revenue is not a state revenue, asking, "If the URT is not a state tax producing state revenue, then what is it?"
Sayre has argued that school districts are allowed to levy their own property taxes above the mandated 25 mills and keep that money, so the possibility of some districts receiving more in property taxes than others is already contemplated in the law.
Sayre said Monday that McDaniel’s filing contained "the same points that they argued before the court made a decision."
Sayre also said that taking the extra URT revenue away from the districts would put them at a disadvantage because they receive relatively small amounts of categorical funding, or funding targeting specific categories of students, including low-income students. He said he made that point in a filing with the court on Friday.
In the amicus brief that Beebe asked the court to accept, the governor said some may ask what the big deal is if two school districts get to keep a few extra dollars.
"The ‘big deal’ is that the court now seems to be saying that part of our constitution — the ‘equality’ provisions of Article 2 — simply no longer apply to the public school funding system", Beebe said in the brief.
Beebe, who served in the Senate for 20 years and as attorney general for four years before first being elected governor in 2006, said the intent of Amendment 74 was to create some degree of equity in the way property taxes are used to fund schools, not to remove equity from the equation.
"The state’s nearly 30-year struggle to finally achieve an equitable and ‘adequate’ constitutional school funding system was no easy task," Beebe said in the brief. "Maintaining it will require the continued vigilance and commitment of all three branches of government. With respect, the court’s decision in this case weakens the glue that must remain strong if an equitable and adequate school funding system is to be maintained."
Sayre said late Monday afternoon he had not yet read Beebe’s brief, but he said he had never before heard of a governor and an attorney general filing separate briefs in the same case.
"It may be directed toward the legislators rather than the court," he said.
Beebe spokesman Matt DeCample said the governor’s brief is directed toward the justices and is intended to provide historical perspective.
"He’s been dealing with (this issue) since he started as a senator almost 30 years ago and feels that his unique perspective is worth adding to the discussion," DeCample said.
Of the four justices who voted in majority last month, only one, Justice Donald Corbin, was on the court prior to 2006. Corbin joined the court in 1991.