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Historical Background

In 1983, the Arkansas Supreme Court found the state's school funding system unconstitutional under the equal protection clause of the state constitution, in Dupree v. Alma School District No. 30. The court found no legitimate state purpose and no rational relationship to educational needs in the state's method of financing public schools. This equity ruling rejected "local control" as a possible justification for the disparities of funding and educational opportunities in the state's school districts.

After the 1983 court decision, the state revised its funding statutes, but plaintiffs challenged the revised system. In 2001, an Arkansas trial court declared the state's education funding system unconstitutional:

“The school funding system now in place . . . is inequitable and inadequate under . . . the Arkansas constitution." The court wrote, "Too many of our children are leaving school for a life of deprivation, burdening our culture with the corrosive effects of citizens who lack the education to contribute." Moreover, the court determined that a constitutional finance system must be based on the amount of money needed to provide an adequate educational system and that "an adequacy [cost] study is necessary and must be conducted forthwith.” Lake View School District, No. 25 v. Huckabee, No. 1992-5318 (Pulaski County Chancery Court May 25, 2001).

The Lake View court based its definition of the "general, suitable and efficient system of free public schools" required by the Arkansas constitution Kentucky's Rose decision and adopted the Rose factors as the requirements for an adequate education. The court also relied on Arkansas's standards for student achievement and accountability to charge the state with providing adequate funding to allow the system's students to achieve the expected outcomes.

The governor appealed, and the Arkansas Supreme Court affirmed the lower court's findings, giving the state until January 1, 2004 to perform a cost study and establish a constitutional funding system. When the state missed the January 2004 deadline, plaintiffs brought a compliance motion, which led to the appointment of special masters by the court and swift action by the legislature, then in special session. The two special masters reported to the state supreme court, and the court terminated its jurisdiction in June 2004.

After the 2005 legislative session, plaintiffs asked the court to [recall the mandate] in Lake View. The court did so and reappointed the special masters who issued a report in October, concluding that “the 2005 legislation…for school year 2005-06 is difficult to defend.” The supreme court ruled in late 2005 that the legislature had failed to comply with its own school funding statues and had under funded education. A special session, held in April 2006, increased funding before the court's December 2006 deadline.

Success Story

After the 2007 legislative session, the special masters reported that the legislature had complied with the court rulings, had established a constitutionally acceptable school finance system (including state support for facilities), and had processes in place to continue to provide adequate resources for schools in the future. The Arkansas Supreme Court adopted the report and closed the case. In sum, the adequacy litigation led to increased state funding for public education, additional state data collection, and a new unprecedented state commitment to adequate school buildings. The state has committed $846 million for facilities, with additional bonding authorized, and increased operating aid by over $400 million, over 17 percent, in the 2003-05 biennium. Arkansas has also become a leader in providing preschool opportunities to its “at-risk” children.

Advocacy Strategies

The governor's primary response to the 2002 court decision was a campaign for school district consolidation. To oppose this campaign and push for school improvements instead, advocates from across the state formed the Arkansas Grass Roots Network, including Arkansans for Excellence in Education, Arkansas Communities Uniting for Results in Education, American Family Association of Arkansas, the Arkansas African American Administrators Associations, the Arkansas Public Policy Panel/Citizens First Congress, Save Our Schools, and the Arkansas Rural Education Association. Analysis provided by the Rural School and Community Trust demonstrated the effectiveness of small schools, especially for low-income and minority students, such as those in many Arkansas districts. The Network succeeded in convincing numerous legislators that sustaining small schools, with their high graduation rates and strong community support, is a more effective way to fulfill the court's mandate. In a compromise, the legislature passed a measure calling for consolidation for districts with fewer than 350 students.

Costing Out

In September 2003, the Arkansas Joint Committee on Educational Adequacy released a study that estimated the cost of providing an adequate education for the state's pre-K through 12th-grade students. The cost study asserted that annual school funding would have to increase by $848 million to provide the resources needed to enable students to meet the state's performance standards. That was a 33% increase over the $2.6 billion spent by Arkansas schools in the 2001-2002 school year.

A “recalibration” of the 2003 study, released in 2006, found that most of the funding needs from ’03 were being met. It recommended increased funding for students learning English and those living in poverty.

Useful Resources

Rural School and Community Trust, "Small Works in Arkansas: How Poverty and the Size of Schools and School Districts Affect School Performance in Arkansas" (March 2002)

Last updated February, 2008