LITTLE ROCK — Six years after the long-running Lake View lawsuit over school funding was resolved, the legacy of the historic case is under fire.
In a lawsuit currently before the state Supreme Court, the Deer-Mount Judea School District alleges that the state has not fully satisfied its obligations under the case, which was resolved in 2007 with a state Supreme Court ruling that Arkansas was adequately funding public schools.
Some who were involved in the Lake View case, on the legal side or the legislative side, admit that the current school funding system has room for improvement.
"It bothers me a little bit when we pat ourselves on the back and say we’ve solved our Lake View problem," said state Rep. Hank Wilkins, D-Pine Bluff, a legislator since 1999. "Well, no we haven’t. It’s a work in progress."
The case began in 1992 when the tiny, now-defunct Lake View School District in Phillips County sued the state, alleging that the state’s system of funding public schools violated the equal protection clause of the Arkansas Constitution. Other districts later joined the suit, which in its early days was concerned mainly with equity between districts but later shifted its focus to whether the state was adequately funding schools.
In 2002, the state Supreme Court ruled that the state’s school funding system was not adequate. The state Legislature responded with a series of spending hikes and sweeping reforms, including forced consolidation of tiny districts and a system in which lawmakers set a per-student funding amount for all districts each year. Regular legislative studies are conducted to help determine how much funding is needed to maintain adequacy.
The Deer-Mount Judea School District, an isolated district in Newton County in northern Arkansas, alleges in its lawsuit that the state is failing to provide isolated districts sufficient funding for needs such as teacher salaries and transportation.
"The promise of Lake View and the reforms enacted in light of that case have not been realized," Clay Fendley, an attorney for the district, told the Supreme Court on Thursday in arguing that a lower court’s dismissal of the case should be reversed.
An attorney for the state attorney general’s office argued that if the dismissal is not upheld, the state could become entangled in "continuous litigation" on issues that were already addressed in Lake View.
Some who were involved with the Lake View case told the Arkansas News Bureau that while they would not take sides in the Deer-Mount Judea case, they would concede that the current system is not perfect.
Wilkins said much progress has been made since the Lake View case began, but "the flip side of that coin is that we still have a number of schools that, one, do not have what I would call truly well trained and motivated teachers in the classroom, which is what our children need, and secondly, facilities adequate to meet the requirements of Lake View."
Wilkins said he would prefer that the courts not have to force lawmakers to take action on issues that they already should be aware of and should be addressing. Part of the problem, he said, is a lack of information on the part of some legislators.
"There are legislators in some parts of state who have no idea what schools look like in certain parts of the Delta, for example," he said.
Jim Argue, who served in the Legislature from 1991 to 2009, also said great progress has been made, but "I think a case could be made in several areas that the state is still lacking in terms of its constitutional mandate."
Argue said the state has a history since Lake View of making "minimal" annual adjustments to per-student funding and has allowed teachers’ health insurance premiums to become "ridiculously high."
"If Lake View required the state to … provide schools with the resources to employ a competent teaching faculty, then how can we justify the absurd shortfall in health insurance benefits we provide teachers?" he said.
A legislative panel is scheduled to take up the issue of teachers’ health insurance premiums on Monday.
If the impetus for change comes from the courts instead of the Legislature, Argue said that is fine with him.
"I’ve always been sort of the odd man out on that question. I don’t really care where we address them, as long as we move forward," he said.
David Matthews, a lawyer who represented the Rogers School District in the Lake View case, said Arkansans should be proud of the advances that resulted from Lake View.
"The promise of Lake View is that education will always be the state’s top spending priority and it won’t be subject to the vagaries of what the funding levels are for the state," he said.
Matthews did not dispute the complaints of the Deer-Mount Judea District, but he said the district is in a unique position because of its geographical isolation.
"I am not aware there’s been a hue and cry that funding is not adequate anymore," he said.
But Matthews said that doesn’t mean the Legislature should not continue tweaking the system, as long as the changes it makes are backed up by studies and evidence.
Gov. Mike Beebe is among those who have expressed concerns about reviving the issues of the Lake View case. In November, after the state Supreme Court ruled that districts could keep excess money from a statewide property tax instead of handing it over to the state Department of Education, Beebe called the decision "wrong" and warned that it "said to folks in the future that want to tinker with (Lake View), ‘Go right ahead.’"
Assistant Attorney General Scott Richardson told the Supreme Court on Thursday, "What Deer-Mount Judea is arguing for is essentially continual litigation. There will be no end. A decision by one court will not have conclusive effect. Any time there is any sort of change to the funding system, there will be new litigation and we will be constantly in litigation over the state’s education funding system."
Matthews said Friday, "I think people need to take a deep breath and not become overly histrionic on any of these education issues. It is and always has been an ever-evolving process.
"Education reform is a journey, not a destination."