Both Arkansas and Oklahoma are deep red states. They have similar conservative majorities in their Legislature and their Constitutional offices. Both states have poverty rates of about 17%. Both states have traditionally ranked low in many education measures, including student achievement and teacher pay.
However, there is one major reason why Arkansas is not in the same boat as Oklahoma, with its drastically reduced spending on education, bottom of the ladder teacher pay, overcrowded classrooms, and pared down curriculum.
That is Arkansas' Lake View school funding lawsuit, in which the Lake View School District maintained that the state's apportioning of resources among public schools was neither equitable (citing large disparities in teacher pay, school facilities, and educational opportunities between the economically distressed areas of the state and prosperous, growing regions like Northwest Arkansas) nor adequate (the state did not invest enough money in education to fund equitable opportunities and an "adequate" education). In November 2002 the state Supreme Court ruled that the Arkansas Constitution requires the state to fund its public schools both equitably and adequately. The court ordered the Legislature to rectify the deficiencies in the state's public education system.
Thus, in 2003 and 2004 the Arkansas Legislature undertook a number of education reforms to address both equity and adequacy. Many of the reforms were based on an Adequacy Study conducted by an outside consultant to determine what constituted an "adequate" education.
To address equity, the Legislature established a state minimum teacher salary schedule that brought districts closer together in teacher pay while not entirely eliminating disparities. They adopted a state-wide curriculum requirement of 38 base credits that every high school must teach. They added funding for students in poverty and English Language Learners. Between 2004 and 2006, the state invested $60 million in the Arkansas Better Chance pre-K program.
The Legislature commissioned a Facilities Study and put policies and procedures in place to ensure that every school district would have equitable and adequate facilities. Schools were indexed by financial ability, with the state subsidizing costs of repair and construction of school facilities on a sliding scale based on need. From 2003 to 2007 the state invested more than $1 billion in public school facilities.
A pre-Lake View law that established a Uniform Rate of Tax (URT) helped in achieving equity by capturing the first 25 mills of property tax in every district and redistributing the funds to all the districts through the school funding formula. In this way, some of the disparity of opportunity was eliminated by making school districts in economically depressed areas beneficiaries of property tax collections in more prosperous areas.
Post-Lake View, the Legislature passed a law that requires education to be funded first, before any other function of state government. A Joint Adequacy Committee studies the educational needs of the public school system and makes a recommendation before each regular session of the Legislature for funding public education in the next biennium. By law, the recommendation must be based on what the districts need, not available funding.
The first year after the Lake View reforms, state spending jumped 12%. Now, 18 years later, 44% of state tax dollars are dedicated to public education. Half of school funding comes from the state, with 40% generated locally and 10% coming from the federal government. As a result of the influx of funding and reform of standards, in 2012 Arkansas had one of the fastest-improving education systems in the U.S.
As long as the Arkansas Legislature remains true to its commitment to public education, Arkansas will never see the kinds of stresses placed on its schools that Oklahoma is now experiencing.
However, each year that passes post-Lake View sees seemingly less commitment to honoring the recommendations of the Adequacy Committee. As the Legislature grows more fiscally conservative, legislators are less inclined to recommend funding that really meets the school districts' needs and less likely to grant the full recommended increase in funding. Once again, teacher salaries are stagnant, and the disparities are growing between the most prosperous and least prosperous districts.
The facilities fund remains perennially low, and does not adequately meet the needs of poorer districts for repair and construction of buildings. The school privatization lobby also threatens funding for traditional public schools, as some legislators are dedicated to introducing free-market "reforms" such as private school vouchers and financial perks for charter schools.
Drastic tax cuts such as those seen in nearby states like Oklahoma and Kansas could also reduce state revenues to the point where the quality of all government functions, including education, is affected.
Arkansas has made great strides in reforming its public school system since 2002. But the Lake View reforms were just a start. We can't rest on past accomplishments but must continue to invest in an education system that will provide every child with a 21st century education.