Should Rich Schools Give Money to Poor Districts? Arkansas Says No

A landmark decision on public school funding and education equity has come under fire in Arkansas.

In Arkansas, schools in wealthier districts are allowed to keep excess funds instead of giving the money to poorer schools. (Photo: Don Tracy)
Suzi Parker is a regular contributor to TakePart. Her work also appears in The Christian Science Monitor and Reuters.

Arkansas has had a long history of education problems, and last week the state suffered another glaring setback.

For 15 years, Arkansas’ school funding formula was at the center of a complicated lawsuit known as the Lake View case. At the heart of the case was the question of affluent local municipalities having more tax money to spend in their school districts. State and federal contributions were supposed to balance local contributions, but that often didn’t happen.

A judge ruled that the way school districts were funded in Arkansas was “inequitable and inadequate.”

The case finally created an overhaul of public school funding so that all public schools were funded equally. Local districts that collected property taxes above the state minimum had to turn that money into the state to be redistributed to poorer districts.

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That was the case until last week when the Arkansas Supreme Court ruled in a 4-3 decision that districts can now keep excessive funds for their own districts.

“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,” Chief Justice Jim Hannah wrote in the dissent. “The state’s carefully crafted constitutional system of state-funded public education is obliterated by the majority’s decision.”

The court’s decision didn’t sit well with Arkansas Governor Mike Beebe. His administration and the state’s attorney general plan to petition the court to rehear the case.

House Republican Leader Bruce Westerman is for the decision. The Associated Press reports “Westerman said he believed it was a good thing for the districts to be able to keep the excess money and disputed the idea that it would hurt the state's school funding efforts.”

Because of the Lake View case, which didn't end until 2007, the legislature enacted broad legislation to reform the state’s education system, including modifying the funding formula, increasing teacher pay, improving facilities, and imposing an extensive standardized testing program. Many small school districts were consolidated into larger ones in order to better educate students.

A 2008 study by Arkansas Advocates reported that “the state per pupil funding for public education has increased dramatically since the Lake View decision and the state appropriated several hundred million dollars to improve school facilities.”

The state Supreme Court decision on Thursday could only affect a handful of Arkansas' 239 districts since only six collect more in property taxes than the state school funding amount this year. However, that number could increase as more people move to wealthier districts.

Arkansas Justice Robert Brown said the court’s decision “takes us back 29 years to a time when a student’s public education was based on the property wealth of that student’s school district.”

He added, “Under that system, students in wealthier school districts fared much better with respect to the educational opportunities available to them, because the property wealth of those districts generated more tax revenue for school operations. This court expressly held in a landmark decision in 1983 that a school-funding system based on property wealth was inherently discriminatory and violated the Arkansas Constitution.”

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