Death, taxes and Lake View

By Steve Brawner
© 2017 by Steve Brawner Communications, Inc.

We’ve all heard the old Benjamin Franklin adage that the only certainties in life are death and taxes. For many years Arkansans have been able to add “public schools getting more money” to that list.

That’s because of a series of 1992-2007 court decisions in a case initially filed by the Lake View School District, a small, poor district in the Delta. Those decisions clarified that the state has a constitutional responsibility to ensure schools everywhere are adequate and equitable. The decisions basically required the state to fund schools first without regard to how much money was readily available or how it would affect other state priorities.

Since then, any debate about public school funding started and ended with two words: “Lake” and “View.” Nobody has wanted a repeat of that experience, where judges, justices and special masters stood over the state’s shoulder making sure it was filling in all the circles to their satisfaction.

As a result, while other states have cut education funding, Arkansas has always increased it – not by much lately, but by at least enough to stay out of court. In fact, the state’s public school districts not only have enough to fund their operations but between them have saved up $790 million in their net legal balances. A bill filed this legislative session by Rep. Mark Lowery, R-Maumelle, would require districts to keep no more than 20 percent of their revenues in those balances and use the rest for other purposes.

This year, as in years past, a legislative committee decided months ago that schools would receive an increase – this time about 1 percent in total per pupil foundation funding, the primary way schools are funded. Under that so-called adequacy report, whose recommendations the full Legislature generally accepts with little debate, in 2018 each school district will receive $6,713 per pupil, and that’s not including numerous other sources of local, state and federal funding that pushed the cost of educating each Arkansas student to about $9,400 as of 2013, according to the Census Bureau.

That’s right. If you have two kids in school, you’re getting about $19,000 worth of government benefits every year, and that’s before you drive on a road, call a fire department, get help with your parents’ health care costs through Medicare and/or Medicaid, or are protected by the military and law enforcers.

Anyway, back to Lake View, which is very slowly exerting less control, as evidenced by the fact that the 1 percent increase was less than it used to be, for a lot of reasons. One, naturally, is that the longer something fades into the past, the less it’s remembered, and there aren’t many policymakers left in Little Rock who were serving when all those Lake View decisions were coming down from the courts. Meanwhile, some state expenses have continued to rise – a good example being health care – at the same time that schools have always been guaranteed a raise. Plus, legislators always want to cut taxes, and that’s harder to do when you always must spend more money on schools.

Finally, there’s this really, really important fact: There are no Supreme Court justices left who had anything to do with those Lake View decisions. The last, Justice Paul Danielson, retired after the 2016 elections. No other justice has been on the court longer than since 2010, so no one knows how they would rule if Lake View were to be reconsidered. For what it’s worth, some of those justices have ruled in one 2012 case, Kimbrell v. McCleskey, that went a little against Lake View by saying certain school districts that collect extra money through property taxes can keep them rather than share them with other districts.

So schools have gotten a lot of money for a long time, other needs must be addressed, legislators always would love to cut taxes, and a whole new cast of policymakers remember less and less about Lake View, and are less scared of stepping past the vague line it drew in the sand. Plus, lawyers can make some pretty good money suing the state over this stuff.

So here’s a prediction and another certainty. The prediction is the state will wind up in another school funding case eventually.

The certainty is that it won’t be called “Lake View.” That district was forced to consolidate with Barton-Lexa in 2004 and no longer exists.

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