For the past quarter century, Arkansas’ education policies – indeed, all state spending – have been framed by the Lake View school funding lawsuit. That may have changed, and we just don’t know it yet.
Let’s start with the background. The Lake View School District No. 25 v. Huckabee case began in 1992, when the small, poor Lake View school district sued the state. It argued that the state was violating the Arkansas Constitution’s requirement to “ever maintain a general, suitable and efficient” education system. The courts agreed that Arkansas had failed to provide "adequate" and "equitable" schools.
During the next 15 years, the case fundamentally changed Arkansas until it finally ended in 2007. Education became accepted as a state responsibility rather than a local one. The state poured money into schools while other states were cutting funding. Schools always were funded first, which meant other priorities shared what was left. Policymakers were reluctant to get too creative with a funding formula they knew was safely constitutional. No one wanted another lawsuit.
But Lake View may not be so influential in the future, for two reasons.
One is that there are no Supreme Court justices remaining who were involved with the decisions – the last having retired after the 2016 elections. One set of legal minds interpreted “general, suitable and efficient” as “adequate” and “equitable.” A different set could have a different interpretation.
Then on Jan. 18 the state Supreme Court ruled that the Legislature cannot pass laws waiving the state’s guarantee of "sovereign immunity” from lawsuits contained in the Arkansas Constitution. The decision noted that Article 5, Section 20 very plainly says the “State of Arkansas shall never be made a defendant in any of her courts.”
Hmm. Does that mean the state can’t ever be sued? That’s what happened with Lake View.
It’s unclear what happens next. Attorney General Leslie Rutledge, the state’s lawyer, believes citizens can still sue the state, said her spokesperson. Gov. Asa Hutchinson told Talk Business & Politics that he has asked state agencies not to assert sovereign immunity in future cases without his approval. But of course the state’s lawyers will want to make their best defense – and, when push comes to shove, so will he. Moreover, as Justice Karen Baker noted in her Jan. 18 dissent, if the Legislature can’t waive sovereign immunity, then neither can the executive branch. Education Commissioner Johnny Key said his people have had discussions but not reached conclusions. Several legislators with whom I spoke weren’t sure what the ramifications would be.
Legislators already had been feeling less constrained by the Lake View decision. The automatic funding increases have been smaller in recent years, and there’s long been talk about changes to the funding formula. Still, they weren’t going to stray too far from the status quo for fear of triggering another lawsuit.
With this latest decision, however, it’s not hard to imagine legislators becoming ever more creative with the funding formula until “adequacy” and “equity” look quite different than they do now.
Does that mean Lake View is dead? As a legal instrument, time will tell. Future Supreme Courts can reinterpret the Constitution. Also, it could be amended. In fact, an effort is being made to do so now.
Meanwhile, as Rep. Stephen Meeks, R-Greenbrier, told me, the case will continue to have an impact on state policy. In the same interview where he asserted that the Supreme Court can’t tell the Legislature to do anything, he said the Lake View decision “definitely pointed out a problem that needed to be addressed.” He said “the system that we’ve put in place is working.” Short-term, he didn’t think much will change.
Lake View, in other words, has been planted in Arkansas politics for a while, and it has roots. For the moment, its central premise isn’t really debated – that it’s the state’s responsibility to ensure that schools are both adequate and equitable.
But over time? Lawmakers will become bolder, policies will change, someone may file a lawsuit, and then we’ll see what the courts decide.
In other words, Lake View isn’t dead yet. But nothing on earth lasts forever – including the Lake View school district, which consolidated with its neighbors in 2005.
Steve Brawner is a syndicated columnist in Arkansas. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at @stevebrawner.