While the Arkansas Supreme Court has relinquished jurisdiction in the Lakeview case, the education reform movement must and will continue. All components of equity and adequacy defined and stipulated by the court ruling must go forward or we will forfeit an unprecedented opportunity and surely be taken back to court with predictable results.
Though not mandated by the Lakeview ruling, human compassion and economic pragmatism demand our most serious commitment to pre-kindergarten education.
The Huckabee administration's revised "balanced budget," presented Nov. 23, is distressing when viewed against the backdrop of these known realities. Undoubtedly correct in the assumption that the Arkansas electorate does not presently support additional taxation, the governor and some legislators err grievously if they are satisfied with taking projected public school fund increases to make up much of the assumed annual school facilities payment. Sen. Jim Argue is correct that such action would be tantamount to reneging on our obligation to continuing education reform.
The $2.8 billion figure estimated by Sen. Shane Broadway and Rep. Joyce Elliot's study is a daunting figure when compared to the state's budget and the income levels of our people. Whatever the total cost proves to be, there are two undeniable realities that must responsibly be faced. Facilities adequacy and equity is a part of the Lakeview decision. Review of Arkansas school buildings and equipment reveals woeful inadequacy and inequity. While a long-term solution is necessitated by economic reality, denial of the state's obligation and playing budget games is folly and will only compound the difficulty of the decisions that we know must be made.
We all know that the money crunch for state services will be anguishing in the 2005 legislative session. Three stark choices present themselves. Raise additional revenues (the usual delicate euphemism), cut programs other than education, or stonewall the court ruling and our commitment to education reform.
Somehow additional outlays need desperately to be made to sustain the excellent start made by the 84th General Assembly. The recent national study that gave Arkansas top ranking for the quality of our pre-K program requirements rated our access and participation as seriously deficient. Quality, expanded pre-school education is the best hope for many culturally and economically deprived children in the Delta and other poverty areas.
The August K-12 Education Subcommittee meeting at the KIPP School in Helena demonstrated a wondrous fact; children living in some of the most heart-rending deprivation in our state can not only learn but excel. Incentive funding for minorities and deprived areas must be continued if we are to maximize our state's human potential.
Real Education Reform will require the best professional talent that can be brought in. Department of Education Director Ken James is absolutely correct in his assessment of the opportunities provided by the recent departmental study. He will be given a realistic chance to improve the department and lead real reform only if he has the funds and latitude to attract and retain quality personnel. Let us give him that chance.
Are there avenues other than taxes (there, I have said it) and cuts in other services that should be considered? Athletic expenditures and excessive school district fund balances are two that come readily to mind. Do we have the courage to pursue them? If I read the court decision and the public mood accurately, the time for protection of "sacred cows" may soon be ended.
I assume that political economic realities will result in a formula that requires local districts to pay a significant part of the facilities improvements. How much sacrifice are school districts patrons willing to make to build and/or upgrade facilities when the long-term survival of their district is increasingly uncertain? The people in each district face agonizing decisions.
In spite of short term pain and monetary distress, the decisions of Judge Collins Kilgore and the Arkansas Supreme Court portend well for our future. Improved public education remains vital to better hopes for our children and for a competitive economy.