Capitol Week in Review
This year marks the 20th anniversary of the Arkansas Supreme Court’s landmark decision in the Lake View school funding case.
In 2002 the court ruled that the state’s system of funding public school was unconstitutional. The legislature approved massive increases in school funding, and enacted tougher school standards.
One result of the Lake View decision is that the legislature now regularly conducts an assessment of the adequacy of school funding. The purpose is for students to be academically proficient for their grade level.
The Senate and House Education Committees have begun the current adequacy study. During a two-day meeting, the committee heard a report on academic progress that Arkansas students have made since the state initiated a series of education reforms to comply with the Lake View ruling.
Arkansas students showed academic improvement during the first ten years the Lake View ruling, but those improvements have not been consistent.
An analysis of academic indicators shows that “progress … has stalled or, in some cases, declined since around 2013. When current data is compared with other states, Arkansas often ranks among the lower performing states.”
It was difficult to draw conclusions in several categories because Arkansas has changed its standardized testing multiple times. More than 20 years ago a judge in the Lake View case cited test scores indicating that only 44 percent of fourth graders were proficient in reading, and only 34 percent were proficient in math.
Recent test results are mixed, showing that 40 percent of fourth graders are proficient in reading and 43 percent are proficient in math.
Arkansas fourth graders and eighth graders are still below the national average in math, reading and science.
After the Lake View case Arkansas high school students caught up to the national average on the ACT college entrance exams. However, their average scores began to drop again in 2017. The decline probably was due to the fact that more students were taking the ACT. With college entrance exams, it’s generally true that when more students take the test, the lower their average scores will be.
Arkansas is 42nd in the nation in high school graduation rates, up from 46th in the year 2000. In rankings that compare the number of adults with a college degree, Arkansas is still 49th. The most recent surveys indicate that 23.3 percent of adults in Arkansas have a bachelor’s degree or higher.
Average teacher salaries have gone up by $16,000 since 2000. Arkansas was ranked as high as 46th in 2019, but went down to 48th in 2020.
Legislators on the Education Committee expressed disappointment with the lack of continued academic progress, considering the size of the state’s investment in public schools.
The Lake View case began 30 years ago, in 1992. The Lake View School District was a small, rural district in Phillips County that sued the state over disparities in how it funded education.
Public schools represent the single largest spending category in state government. Last year the state distributed $2.2 billion through the Public School Fund. That accounted for 40 percent of all state general revenue spending.