Two significant things happened before the 2002 Lake View opinion was decided. First, the trial court certified the Lake View class, which included all public school districts in the state, students and parents of students in all school districts, school board members of all school districts, and school district taxpayers who supported the system. This covered virtually ever Arkansan, because almost every Arkansan pays some form of state income taxes or local property taxes that support schools. Second, the people of Arkansas approved Amendment 74 to the Arkansas Constitution. That amendment established a uniform rate of ad valorem property tax, or simply known as the URT, of 25 mills in each school district to be used solely for the maintenance and operation of public schools. Amendment 74 requires that the amount collected from the URT be remitted to the State Treasurer and then distributed back to school districts, essentially creating what most considered a state tax, though, as I will soon discuss, this has become a contested issue. Finally, Amendment 74 allows for “variations” in public school funding, providing school districts the opportunity to levy additional mills above the URT to be used in their schools.
It’s against this backdrop that the Arkansas Supreme Court examined the Lake View case. Stopping short of declaring education a fundamental right under the Arkansas constitution, the Court found that amid abysmal student achievement measures and huge discrepancies in curriculum, facilities, and teacher pay, the school funding system in place at the time was both inadequate and inequitable. The Court clarified that equalizing revenue to school districts was only part of the solution; rather, equality must be measured by actual expenditures on students.
So what must the State do? Here’s what the Court said:
- Define what constitutes an “adequate education.” The State had argued that this was impossible to define. The Court didn’t like this argument, and as such, the General Assembly, with help from the Department of Education, performs adequacy studies every two years.
- Assess, evaluate, and monitor student achievement statewide to ensure all students have substantially equal educational opportunities. Academic accountability measures have since been put in place. Notable enhancements to the Arkansas Comprehensive Testing, Assessment and Accountability Program (ACTAAP) and the Standards for Accreditation are only two examples.
- Monitor how school funds are being spent. The State argued that local control should prevail, but the Court disagreed, and pointed back to DuPree, in which the Court made clear that educating children was the state’s obligation. As a result, we now have increased financial accountability and reporting requirements for school districts, including the Fiscal Distress program.
The above examples are only a few of the many programs, statutes, regulations, and policies that have since been developed as a result of Lake View. Perhaps the most noticeable program is the State’s Facilities program, which will be discussed in a future post. Almost $1 billion of state funds have been spent for the construction, renovation, and repair of school facilities statewide since the program’s creation in 2005.
Unlike most court cases that are essentially over once the Supreme Court speaks, Lake View drug on for five more agonizing years. And the Court has been criticized because of it.