- The Washington Times - Friday, January 23, 2004

LITTLE ROCK, Ark. (AP) — Expressing impatience with the legislature’s failure to improve education, the Arkansas Supreme Court said it would appoint someone to bring the state’s school system up to constitutional standards.

Meanwhile, the state House passed a plan yesterday that would consolidate some school districts.

The order came after a lawyer for the state acknowledged during a hearing that lawmakers missed a court-imposed Jan. 1 deadline for coming up with ways to improve schools. The state pleaded for more time, but the justices said they were ready to act.

“We gave the state 14 months to implement a new system and that wasn’t complied with,” Justice Robert Brown said on Thursday. “It’s really not even close, is it?”

In the most significant legislation passed to date, the Arkansas House yesterday approved a bill to consolidate the administrations of 59 small school districts.

Gov. Mike Huckabee, Republican, had proposed merging about 100 high schools, and it was not clear whether he would sign the bill. It does not require school closures, though the new, consolidated districts could choose to close schools later.

The court did not say when it would appoint a special master, or how long the master would have to analyze the school system. The legislature can continue it’s attempts to address the issue, but the court will decide whether they are adequate.

In November 2002, the high court said Arkansas didn’t spend enough money on education and distributed funds unevenly. It ordered changes in the $1.8 billion system and gave the state until Jan. 1, 2004, to put them in place.

Legislators failed to reach an agreement last year, divided largely by Mr. Huckabee’s plan to merge the smallest 100 or so districts to make schools more efficient.

Legislators have met in special session since Dec. 8, but the new year arrived with no significant changes in the way Arkansas educates about 450,000 students in 308 districts.

The court case stems from a lawsuit filed in 1992 by the Lake View School District, but the state’s education system also was declared unconstitutional in 1983.

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