K-12 public schools in Arkansas enroll about 479,000 students, with 57% in poverty, 6% learning English, 33% minorities, and annual expenditures of a little over $4 billion. (Most recent NCES data)
The Arkansas Supreme Court, on multiple occasions beginning in 1983, found that the state’s education finance system violated the state constitution. After the state increased education funding and instituted other reforms, the court, in Lake View v. Huckabee, in 2007, held the state’s system of public-school funding to be in constitutional compliance.
In 2012 the Arkansas Supreme Court, in Kimbrell v. McClesky, ruled that school districts with “excess” property tax revenues may keep the revenues that exceed the state's per-student funding minimum, thereby disallowing an important equitable funding provision of state law. While the long-term consequences of this decision are yet to be seen, it raises concerns about potential inequities that may develop.
In 1983, the Arkansas Supreme Court held in Dupree v. Alma Sch. Dist. No. 30 that the state’s system of allocating funds among school districts violated the state constitution's guarantee of equal protection and its requirement that the state provide a "general, suitable, efficient system" of education. The court found no sound basis for holding the equal protection clause inapplicable to the case, and ruled that the state’s property tax system, on which the state’s system of school funding was based, had no "rational relationship to the educational needs of the individual districts…."
In 1994, in Lake View Sch. Dist. No. 25 v. Huckabee, a state trial court found that the significant education funding disparities between school districts in the state violated both the equal protection and education clauses of the state constitution. The trial court stayed its opinion to give the legislature time to implement a constitutional system, and the state responded by passing legislation intended to fulfill its obligation under the 1994 order. But, Lake View School district alleged that the funding system remained unconstitutional.
In 2002, in Lakeview III, the Arkansas Supreme Court found the system to be both inadequate and inequitable, in violation of the education article and equal protection provisions of the state constitution. The high court gave the state time to correct the deficiencies. In 2004, in Lakeview IV, based on steps the legislature had taken to comply with the Lakeview III decision, the court released jurisdiction of the case. However, the following year, plaintiffs alleged that the legislature had reneged on its commitments and failed to comply with the legislation that the court had approved in Lakeview IV.
In 2005, therefore, the state supreme court recalled its mandate and, in Lakeview V, held that the legislature had failed to abide by its own remedy. After the legislature took further steps to comply with the constitutional mandate, the court held, in 2007, that the legislature had “taken the required and necessary legislative steps to assure that the school children of this state are provided an adequate education and a substantially equal educational opportunity,” and thereby ended the long-standing Lake View v. Huckabee case.
“Intelligence and virtue being the safeguards of liberty and the bulwark of a free and good government, the State shall ever maintain a general, suitable and efficient system of free public schools and shall adopt all suitable means to secure to the people the advantages and opportunities of education.” Ark. Const. art. 14, § 1.
The Arkansas Supreme Court in Lake View v. Huckabee, 91 S.W.3d 472, 487-88 (2002) (Lake View III), adopted the constitutional education standard established in the Kentucky case, Rose v. Council for Better Education, 790 S.W.2d 186, 212 (1989):
“[A]n efficient system of education must have as its goal to provide each and every child with at least the seven following capacities: (i) sufficient oral and written communication skills to enable students to function in a complex and rapidly changing civilization; (ii) sufficient knowledge of economic, social, and political systems to enable the student to make informed choices; (iii) sufficient understanding of governmental processes to enable the student to understand the issues that affect his or her community, state, and nation; (iv) sufficient self-knowledge and knowledge of his or her mental and physical wellness; (v) sufficient grounding in the arts to enable each student to appreciate his or her cultural and historical heritage; (vi) sufficient training or preparation for advanced training in either academic or vocational fields so as to enable each child to choose and pursue life work intelligently; and (vii) sufficient levels of academic or vocational skills to enable public school students to compete favorably with their counterparts in surrounding states, in academics or in the job market.”
Later, in Lake View IV, 189 S.W.3d 1 (2004), the court noted various definitions of "adequacy," including:
- its reference in Lake View III, discussed above, to the Rose factors for educational goals;
- a dictionary definition of "efficiency" cited by the Special Masters who were assigned to evaluate the General Assembly’s compliance with the court’s order in Lake View III – "capacity to produce desired results with a minimum expenditure of energy, time, money and materials;" and
- the definition offered in the cost study commissioned by the General Assembly - "an amount of revenue per pupil enabling a student to acquire knowledge and skills specified by public officials as necessary to participate productively in society and to have an opportunity to lead a fulfilling life."
The court found all of these definitions were "helpful," but declined to rule on a specific definition of adequacy, concluding that the precise definition of an adequate education as we deem that to be a matter better left to the General Assembly and to the State Department of Education.
The court, in Lakeview IV, also held that:
“An adequate educational opportunity must be afforded on a substantially equal basis to all the school children of this state. This does not mean that if certain school districts provide more than an adequate education, all school districts must provide more than an adequate education with identical curricula, facilities, and equipment. Amendment 74 to the Arkansas Constitution allows for variances in school district revenues above the base millage rate of 25 mills, which may lead to enhanced curricula, facilities, and equipment which are superior to what is deemed to be adequate by the State. Nevertheless, the overarching constitutional principle is that an adequate education must be provided to all school children on a substantially equal basis with regard to curricula, facilities, and equipment. Identical curricula, facilities, and equipment in all school districts across the state is not what is required.” 189 S.W.3d 1, 13 (2004).
In 2002, in Lake View Sch. Dist. No. 25 v. Huckabee (Lakeview III), the plaintiffs asserted that, if the State is already either directly or indirectly financing some school districts that are providing early childhood education, then it must provide equal access to pre-school education. Interveners further argued that uncontroverted testimony at trial established that the State could not provide a constitutionally adequate education for students age six and older unless it established a program of pre-kindergarten education because, if a child starts out behind due to no pre-school education, that child never makes up the lost ground. The Arkansas Supreme Court rejected these arguments, finding that the plain language of the Education Article does not mandate early-childhood education, that language in the state constitution instead makes spending on education for “persons over 21 years of age and under six years of age” optional, and the implementation of preschools programs is a public-policy issue for the General Assembly to explore and resolve.
The court reiterated this conclusion in Lake View IV. Though the special masters appointed by the court to review the General Assembly’s compliance with Lake View III had suggested in their written report to the court that the state could not meet the goal of the court’s decision without the provision of a preschool program for disadvantaged children, the court again held that General Assembly alone decides what early-childhood-education programs shall be implemented. Nevertheless, the Arkansas Legislature responded to the Lake View litigation and advocacy efforts in the state by including a significant, state-funded preschool program in its plan to meet the court’s mandate for a constitutionally adequate system of school finance.
The Arkansas Better Chance Program (ABC) is rated an exceptionally high 9 out of 10 on the established quality indicators and has grown to serve 41% of all 4-year-olds and 9% of all three-year-olds.
The State of Arkansas believes that high-quality early care and education provide children from all backgrounds, particularly low-income children, with the skills, enrichment, and learning opportunities that increase their future success.
ABC provides early care and education to children between birth and age five. Within the ABC Program is the Arkansas Better Chance for School Success Program ("ABC School Success"), which provides high quality preschool education to low-income 3- and 4-year-old children in low-performing school districts. ABC must be offered in any school district (1) designated in academic distress, or (2) where the majority of students score low on state assessments. It must provide at least 178 instructional days per year and seven hours per day.
Children are eligible for the program if their family’s income does not exceed 200% of the federal poverty level. Additional children are eligible if they: are in foster care; have a parent in jail; have a parent serving in the military overseas; or in other specific situations. Nonetheless, acceptance depends on program and space availability, which depends on available funding. If space is available, children whose families have income above the 200% criterion but below 250% may enroll and pay fees on a sliding scale.
Any early childhood program that complies with ABC School Success standards and is accredited by the Department of Health and Humans Services and quality-approved by the Department of Education may apply for funding, regardless of who sponsors the program. The General Assembly encourages coordination among early childhood education and childcare programs. ABC programs must collaborate with other providers in their communities.
While the program was initially funded entirely through a dedicated sales tax, from 2001-2007, ABC received funding through an excise tax on packaged beer. To date, ABC receives some federal funding, although at least 40% of the program’s overall funding must consist of local contributions. The Division of Child Care and Early Childhood Education may waive the match requirement if the school or program is in a district in "academic distress" and the Division determines that, despite assistance, the school is unable to provide the 40% match.
Over the past few years, state funding for the program has increased steadily, leading to greater access to preschool education.
According to the National Institute for Early Education Research (NIEER), Arkansas served 41% of all four-year-olds in its state preschool program in 2008-2009, showing a 3% decrease in the growth trend observed in prior years.
The annual NIEER analysis rates Arkansas’ ABC School Success program at 9 out of 10.
All ABC School Success teachers in public school settings must possess a P-4 certification, while teachers in other settings must have a bachelor’s degree specializing in early childhood.
Some classrooms in multi-classroom sites, however, may utilize a teacher with only an associate’s degree, which does not meet NIEER’s quality benchmark. Assistant teachers must have an associate's degree or a Child Development Associate credential.
The ABC initiative participated in an evaluation for both process quality and program impact/child outcomes through a study that began sampling children in the 2005-2006 school year and continued through the 2009-2010 year. A second study replicating the first study begins in the 2010-2011 school year.