At the end of the Court’s 2002 opinion, the Court did something somewhat unusual…..it stayed the issuance of its mandate until January 1, 2004. So what’s a mandate? It’s essentially the official notice from the Supreme Court Clerk that the decision is final and that the case is over. The clerk is instructed by rule to issue mandates automatically on the 19th calendar day after an opinion is released by the Court (parties have 18 calendar days to file a petition for rehearing, and a decision isn’t final until this deadline has passed). However, of course, parties may ask that the issuance of the mandate be stayed (for certain reasons not applicable here) or the Court may stay the mandate on its own accord. In this case, the Court stayed the issuance of its mandate in order to give the General Assembly an opportunity to correct the constitutional deficiencies.
So the mandate was issued on January 1, 2004, and the case was over, right? Well, not exactly. Only days after the mandate was issued (22 to be exact) the Court recalled the mandate because the State had not complied with the 2002 opinion. By my count, the mandate was either recalled or its issuance stayed due to the State’s noncompliance four times from 2004 until 2007 when the final decision declaring the school funding system constitutional was handed down. Throughout this time, special masters were appointed (and reappointed) by the Court to monitor the State’s progress (or lack thereof).
From a pure education standpoint, what the Court did from 2002 until 2007, and what was accomplished as a result, is laudable, and I think most would agree that this State would never have made such great strides in educational funding and student achievement had it not been for the Court’s persistence. However, from a political and legal standpoint, the Court’s actions have been criticized as a violation of the Separation of Powers Doctrine, even from members of the Court itself. Justice Jim Hannah concurred on numerous occasions, noting his concern with the precedent being set by the Court’s continued monitoring of the legislative and executive branches of government. Justice Hannah wrote:
“My greatest fear has been realized. After we took the unprecedented step of recalling the mandate in this case, we were asked at the very first opportunity to retain jurisdiction and oversee the work of the General Assembly. There is no precedent for overseeing the work of the General Assembly, and we have no authority to do so. There are sound reasons behind the decision of our forefathers to set up three co-equal branches of government, and the resulting system of checks and balances has served us well. We should be highly reluctant to injure the venerable doctrine that has served us so well.”
Lake View School Dist. v. Huckabee, 358 Ark. 137, 162-63, 189 S.W.3d 1, 18 (2004) (Hannah, J., concurring).
Despite criticism, the Court held strong to its commitment to ensure that the State fulfill its duty to provide an adequate and equitable education to all children in Arkansas. In 2007, the Court ruled that the State had taken all necessary steps to fulfill this duty, and it issued the mandate in the case for the last time. Our legislature and executive continue to work to improve education in Arkansas and fulfill its constitutional duty in this regard.
So, to close, here are a few of the final takes from Lake View:
- Consolidation – a hot topic, both during the Lake View litigation and today. The Court in Lake View did not mandate consolidation at any particular number. Rather, it said that if an adequate curriculum, facilities, and equipment cannot be afforded to students in smaller schools due to limited resources, then more efficient measures must be taken. This means that economies of scale should be utilized. Act 60 of 2003 mandates consolidation for districts with less than 350 students. This was no magical number, but rather a compromise. The funding matrix though, is based on a student population of 500, but that’s a discussion for another day.
- Substantially equal does not mean identical – an adequate educational opportunity must be afforded on a substantially equal basis to all students. Some districts, however, can choose to provide more than an adequate education, though others do not. Districts are allowed to go above and beyond by passing millage increases above the URT.
- The State’s obligation to fund other programs – Medicaid, prisons, higher education – is no excuse. K-12 education is funded first. Everything else falls behind.
- The State has the absolute duty to educate its children. If a local school district can’t do it, the State must step in and take over. No district, even the largest in the state, is immune.
By: Jennifer Flinn