Friday, May 21, 2010

Week In Review

State Capitol Week in Review

LITTLE ROCK – The Little Rock School District filed a motion in federal court seeking to prohibit the state from approving any more charter schools in Pulaski County, or from expanding any of the county's existing charter schools.

The filing has financial implications for all schools in Arkansas for reasons that go beyond the issue of charter schools. For example, it includes a request for additional state aid for transportation, an issue of great interest to rural Arkansas school districts that must bus students long distances.

Technically, the motion asks the federal court to enforce the provisions of a 1989 settlement in a lawsuit over desegregation between the state and the three school districts in Pulaski County. The schools alleged that the state was liable for some of the segregation of Little Rock and Pulaski County schools.

Under the settlement, the state pays about $70 million a year to Pulaski County schools, and since the settlement was agreed to in 1989 the state has paid them about $1 billion. That money comes directly "off the top" of the state treasury and is not part of the Public School fund that distributes state aid to the 244 school districts in Arkansas.

State officials and legislators from outside Pulaski County have voiced a strong desire to phase out payments in the desegregation case, so that the money can be put into the Public School fund that goes to all Arkansas schools. The motion to prohibit charter schools in Little Rock may make phasing out state payments more difficult to achieve. The Little Rock School District contends that the state Board of Education has approved too many open enrollment charter schools in Pulaski County, without considering their negative impact on Little Rock's desegregation efforts.

Little Rock argues that strict enforcement of the 1989 settlement requires a halt to any more charter schools in Pulaski County and that new conditions be placed on existing charter schools in Pulaski County.

Also, Little Rock is asking for the state to pay additional transportation costs, specifically for bussing poor students. According to the Little Rock School District's motion, it pays an average of $646 per student per year on transportation, but the state only provides $286 per student. Little Rock argues that 180 of the state's school districts pay more than $286 per pupil for transportation, and that the average transportation cost statewide is $387 per student.

Little Rock argues that the state's failure to fully fund local districts' transportation costs means that they must divert revenue from teacher salaries, classroom supplies and other components of an adequate education.

This is slippery legal ground for the state. In a separate lawsuit known as the Lake View case, filed by a small rural district in east Arkansas, the state had to significantly increase education funding to bring it to constitutionally adequate levels, as determined by the state Supreme Court.

The Lake View lawsuit has ended and now, in every session, the legislature takes care to analytically determine how much money is required to provide every student in Arkansas with an adequate education. As required by the state Constitution, the legislature fully funds that amount. By raising the issue of transportation funding, Little Rock's most recent legal motion appears to question whether that is good enough.

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