Capitol Hill (CNSNews.com) - Arkansans may face the prospect of higher taxes in the New Year in the wake of an Arkansas Supreme Court ruling that the state's public education funding system is unconstitutional. The November ruling has sparked renewed debate over whether more spending boosts student achievement and questions about how the cash-strapped state will afford the spending increase.
In the November decision, the court said the $1.7 billion the state spends each year was neither enough nor "equitably" distributed for Arkansas' 450,000 students. Analysts say that means tax increases for 244 of the state's 310 school districts.
The court gave the state until January 2004 to redesign its education funding system and threatened to revisit any new funding scheme, pending future legal challenge.
"Equality of educational opportunity must include as basic components substantially equal curricula, substantially equal facilities and substantially equal equipment," wrote Justice Robert L. Brown, author of the majority opinion.
The 69-page opinion largely affirmed a lower court ruling that disparities in teacher salaries, curriculum, and school building conditions were "evidence of an inadequate and inequitable school system."
Justices called "implausible" and "farfetched" the state's argument that spending more money will not automatically improve student performance.
"We are convinced that motivated teachers, sufficient equipment to supplement instruction, and learning in facilities that are not crumbling or overcrowded, all combine to enhance educational performance," Brown wrote.
"All of that takes money," the opinion concluded.
The court's analysis is bolstered by a recent report concluding that certain groups of students are deprived of a quality education when a state provides less funding.
"Our analysis reveals that, in most states, school districts that educate the greatest number of poor and minority students have less state and local money to spend per student than districts with the fewest poor and minority students," according to the report released by the Washington, D.C.-based Education Trust. "This will inevitably impede their efforts to help their students reach [performance] standards."
The report excludes from its analysis federal education funding, much of which is targeted at students in lower-income and minority households through programs such as Head Start, and the availability of discounted or free breakfasts and lunches on campus.
Some education experts warn that higher spending won't produce the hoped-for improvements in education.
"Study after study over the years has shown that per-pupil spending has absolutely no bearing on academic performance," said James Weidman, spokesman for the Heritage Foundation. "So it's obvious that throwing money is not the solution to this problem."
Weidman pointed to education spending data, which he said, when combined with standardized test scores, prove his point.
If spending was the key, "the [Washington] D.C. public schools would be the best in the country. D.C. spends more per pupil than on average than [almost] any other state in the nation," said Weidman. "Yet, on the standardized testing, D.C. comes out dead last in terms of student performance."
The most recent U.S. Census Bureau Education Finance Survey for the 1999-2000 school year does indicate a wide disparity between the states when it comes to the amount of money spent on elementary and secondary students.
The average for per-pupil spending was $6,836. States spending the least per student were Utah ($4,331), Mississippi ($5,014) and Arizona ($5,033). Spending the most on their students were New Jersey ($10,283 per student), New York ($10,039) and the District of Columbia ($9,933).
Meaningful comparisons of per-pupil spending must take into account the differences in each state's demographics, according to Mike Griffith, a school finance policy analyst for the Education Commission of the States, a national research organization in Denver.
Griffith told Education Week in June that, for instance, school spending in New York outpaces that in Utah because of higher costs for land, supplies, and teacher salaries in New York. The Empire State also has larger populations of students who are more costly to educate, he explained, such as those learning English and coming from low-income families.
However, similar cost of living, real estate, and operational cost disparities were dismissed by the Arkansas justices.
It's unclear how Arkansas lawmakers will comply with the court's decision. Citing court rulings and federal mandates to provide certain services, Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee (R) recently proposed raising the general state sales tax by five-eighths of a cent, saying that had no other choice.
Legislators, however, rejected the governor's tax increase.
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