Huckabee told the group that even though his plan for school consolidation is controversial, a plan has to be formulated because of a state Supreme Court ruling on the Lake View School District lawsuit. The court mandated that the state develop a solution by Jan. 1, 2004, to provide equal educational opportunities to public school students across Arkansas.
The governor said the suit was filed when Bill Clinton was governor.
The decision was unanimous with a 7-0 vote.
The court said students in the Lake View School District in Phillips County must be provided a comparable education to students anywhere else in the state.
The court said the constitution requires the state, not local school boards, to see that students get a suitable education.
Huckabee compared the Rogers School District with Lake View. He said Lake View offers a minimal number of courses, has low teacher pay and low test scores despite higher per-pupil expenditures and smaller student/teacher ratios. Rogers School District offers diverse courses, teachers receive a higher pay, and test scores are among the highest in the state despite low per-pupil expenditures and bigger classes.
Lake View spends $7,833 per student while Rogers spends $5,300, the governor said. The state average is $5,867.
The governor said it's not enough just to throw more money at the problem; schools need to be made more efficient.
Huckabee said the state spends 87 percent more on education now than it did in 1990 but remains near the bottom on most measures of student performance.
Huckabee said it could mean a significant increase in taxes to provide a basic level of educational opportunity in the state's school systems. The cost is high to flow money to the least efficient school districts, the governor said.
It could cost $700 million to reform education in Arkansas, he said. That figure could be raised with an additional 2-cent sales tax on everything or an increase in property taxes.
State Rep. Boyd Hickinbotham, chairman of the House Committee on Revenue and Taxes, asked the governor the estimated cost for the education plan. Huckabee said it was similar to building a sidewalk -- before the cost could be estimated the builder needed to figure the amount of concrete necessary to complete the job. Once that information was available then an estimated cost can be given, the governor added.
Hickinbotham asked if the governor was promoting a sales tax to fund his plan, but Huckabee said he isn't at present.
Under the current funding formula, if a school is operating efficiently it won't be rewarded but will be making a generous contribution to inefficient schools, he said. He said Rogers is being punished for having an efficient school, but Lake View is being rewarded for its inefficiency.
Huckabee wants districts to operate in a responsible manner while providing the mandated 38 1/2 credits.
Huckabee said he used 40 years of research that looked at operational and academic efficiency to create his plan. His figures show a district does not reach operational efficiency until it has between 1,000 and 1,500 students.
He said 292 of the state's 309 districts have another high school within 10 miles. He said one possible solution would be to designate each campus for a different purpose -- one for a vocational campus, another as a core curriculum campus and another as a college preparatory campus.
He cited alternatives to consolidation, including online courses, distance learning through video conferences and sharing teachers.
The governor said per capita income levels needs to be raised; when people earn more, fewer people need government services.
Huckabee said Arkansas is not last in teacher pay or test results in schools. "There are some great schools in Arkansas," he said. But Arkansas is second to last in the number of students who start college who stay in college until graduation.
He said the Education Commission conducted a study to find out why people quit college; he said race and poverty levels were not factors but whether students were rigorously challenged with high school courses was the biggest factor in determining whether students dropped out of college. He said it is critical for high school students to be exposed to a broad curriculum.
Huckabee said no matter how the court responds to the Lake View decision it will affect all communities. He said it will affect turnback money and even sewer projects. "Its impact will be that dramatic," he said.
"The point is, we have to be able to defend ourselves in court," he said.
Huckabee said the case will always be recorded in history as Lake View vs. Huckabee even though it was filed long before he became governor. "I didn't ask for it. I didn't seek it," he said.
"I just happened to be the poor, dumb sap in the governor's chair when the decision came down," he said. He added the state could respond to the decision in one of three ways: it could defy the courts, ignore the court, or comply with the court. "I choose to comply," he said.