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The state supreme court has declared Arkansas’ school funding formula unconstitutional for the second time since 1983. The decision Thursday, which was unanimous on the key issues, affirmed a 2001 lower court decision that the state failed to distribute $1.7 billion in education funding equitably among 310 school districts. It also affirmed the lower court’s ruling that overall funding was not adequate to provide equal educational opportunities for the state’s 450,000 public school children. The supreme court referred to the state’s “abysmal rankings” in key national education indicators — last in education expenditures, 49th in adult high school graduates, below the national average in standardized tests, near the bottom among states in teacher pay — but did not impose specific solutions. It gave the state until Jan. 1, 2004, to fashion its own remedies, cautioning that justices would not hesitate to review the results. Groups from child advocates to the Arkansas State Chamber of Commerce hailed the ruling as a landmark opportunity for Arkansas to improve its education system and enhance quality of life for its residents. “The supreme court has affirmed what many of us have known for a long time — we’re not adequately addressing the needs of our children,” said Stacy Pittman, co-chairman of an education study panel that recommended sweeping changes to improve the public school system. Gov. Mike Huckabee said he respected the court’s decision. Last week, he proposed a sales tax increase of five-eighths of a percent that would, among other things, provide $113 million in additional revenue for public schools. Experts have testified that remedies for education deficiencies could cost an additional $400 million to $900 million annually. “No longer can the state operate on a ‘hands-off’ basis regarding how state money is spent on local school districts and what the effect of that spending is,” Justice Robert Brown wrote in Thursday’s decision. The high court’s unequivocal conclusion that “the state has an absolute duty to provide an adequate education to every school child” could mean diminished local control of public schools, Huckabee and others said. In its ruling Thursday, the court said steps taken since a 1983 ruling striking down the school-funding system — including a sales tax hike, the implementation of statewide standards and changes to the funding formula — hadn’t solved the inequity. Copyright 2002 Associated Press. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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