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Jim DuPree v. Alma School District No. 30

Jim DuPree et al. v. Alma School District No. 30 et al. was a lawsuit that triggered twenty-five years of litigation and legislation to raise the quality of and increase funding for public education in Arkansas. The Arkansas Supreme Court ruled on the suit on May 31, 1983, concluding that the state government had consistently failed to provide the money and programs that would guarantee a suitable education for all children in Arkansas regardless of where they lived. The decision was the springboard that Governor Bill Clinton used that fall to push a raft of education reforms—including higher taxes—through the Arkansas General Assembly and the state Board of Education. A decade later, the issues were revived by a succession of court cases under the general rubric Lake View School District No. 25 v. Huckabee. The Supreme Court issued a series of rulings that caused the General Assembly and Governors Jim Guy Tucker, Mike Huckabee, and Mike Beebe to take further steps, including enacting more taxes, school consolidation, and a permanent funding mandate, to comply with the Arkansas State Constitution’s requirement that the state furnish a suitable education to all children equally. Still, the issues raised in DuPree v. Alma and in Lake View remained alive in the second decade of the twenty-first century.

Unequal school funding in states where schools were largely local matters was an enduring legislative and judicial issue after World War II—and particularly in the South after the racial desegregation of schools. Every two years, the Arkansas legislature fiddled with the complicated state formula that allocated state aid for education (called the Minimum Foundation Program) in order to balance inequities among the state’s approximately 400 school districts. Each redesign of the formula left huge disparities in per-pupil spending among the districts. After the passage of a distribution law in 1979, Alma (Crawford County) and ten other school districts sued the state Board of Education, which was chaired by Jim DuPree of Weldon (Jackson County), contending that the Minimum Foundation Program and a separate law funding school vocational programs left the schools dramatically unequal, in violation of the equal-protection clauses of the state and federal constitutions. Further, they argued that Arkansas schools as a whole were in flagrant violation of the Arkansas State Constitution’s mandate that the state provide a suitable and efficient education for every child.

The Supreme Court had set the table for the issues to be adjudicated in 1979 when it ruled in Public Service Commission v. Pulaski County Equalization Board that Arkansas counties were flouting the state constitution by allowing mammoth disparities in assessing property for local taxes, the first source of school funds. Some counties assessed property at as low as three percent of its value, while others assessed it as high as twenty-three percent. The court ordered a reappraisal of all property in the state at a uniform rate, as the state constitution seemed to require.

All the trial judges in Pulaski County disqualified themselves from trying the Alma suit, and Circuit Judge Harrell Simpson of Pocahontas (Randolph County) was appointed to hear it. Simpson ruled that the system of financing the schools violated the state constitution, and the state appealed to the Supreme Court.

In a lengthy opinion written by Justice Steele Hays, the Arkansas Supreme Court upheld Judge Simpson’s ruling in forceful language. After dissecting the pupil-spending laws, Hays said the court could not ignore the overwhelming evidence of unconstitutional disparities. Taking into account both local taxes and state aid, per-pupil spending among the school districts in 1978–79 ranged from $873 to $2,378. In several other states with similar constitutional provisions to Arkansas’s, the courts had said spending disparities among school districts did not violate equal protection as long as the state was providing an adequate education for children. But the Supreme Court’s majority (the vote was six to one) concluded that state and federal equal-protection clauses had to apply.

“We can find no legitimate state purpose to support the system,” Hays wrote. “It bears no rational relationship to the educational needs of the individual districts, rather it is determined primarily by the tax base of each district….Such a system only promotes greater opportunities for the advantaged while diminishing the opportunities for the disadvantaged.”

The court said the state’s public schools were being run unconstitutionally, not only because the spending was so unequal between schools but because the state was not providing a suitable education to children. Justice Hays wrote that providing a good education to all children was basic to society and to having a civilized culture and democratic institutions. Justice Darrell Hickman wrote a ringing concurring opinion. Chief Justice Richard B. Adkisson dissented. He said dramatic spending disparities did not necessarily violate the constitutions and that the court should give the court-ordered statewide property reappraisals, which were under way, a chance to close the disparities.

Anticipating the Supreme Court’s opinion, Governor Clinton stalled on school reforms, including a new school-aid formula, during the session of the legislature in the winter and spring of 1983. After the decision at the end of May, he announced that he would call a special session of the legislature for the fall to tackle school reforms, including taxes and a new distribution formula. He appointed his wife, Hillary Rodham Clinton, to chair a commission to overhaul the old accreditation standards for public schools; barnstormed the state in support of a sales tax for the schools; and promised to require teachers to take a basic skills test to reassure people that their teachers were competent. The legislature passed the tax and a large batch of education bills in the fall, and the state Board of Education adopted higher standards that every school district would have to meet over a few years. The school initiatives raised the governor’s national profile and put him on course to run for president nine years later.

As Bill Clinton headed for Washington in 1993, the DuPree v. Alma issues resurfaced in a lawsuit brought this time by the tiny all-black Lake View School District in Phillips County. Pulaski County Chancellor Annabelle Imber ruled in 1994 (Lake View School District No. 25 v. Huckabee) that funding and program inequalities among districts violated the education and equal-protection provisions of the state constitution, and she gave the legislature and governor a couple of years to correct them. Governor Jim Guy Tucker and the legislature enacted changes in the aid formula and referred a constitutional amendment, adopted by the voters in 1996, that sought to balance local tax support by taking the first twenty-five mills of local school taxes in each district and redistributing the funds throughout the state to equalize spending.

Judge Imber’s decision was appealed to the Supreme Court, which eventually ordered the lower court to conduct a thorough investigation of the quality of school programs throughout the state to determine whether Arkansas complied with the constitution’s mandate to offer a “general, suitable and efficient” education to all children as the constitution required. Judge Collins Kilgore (Judge Imber by then had been elected to the Arkansas Supreme Court) heard evidence on school quality and ruled that the schools were manifestly inadequate, and the Supreme Court in 2002 upheld the decision. The legislature raised taxes, consolidated school districts with fewer than 350 students, adopted changes in the aid formula, and passed other reforms over the next five years. Central to the effort was a legislative mandate that the public schools every year be funded first, before any other state programs, and at a level that would meet the “adequate” standard set by the court. During that period, the Arkansas Supreme Court twice issued additional rulings on whether the work of the legislature and the two governors, Mike Huckabee and Mike Beebe, satisfied the constitution. Twice, the court appointed two former justices to serve as masters to evaluate what the legislature had done. In 2007, the court finally held that proper steps had been taken to ensure an adequate education for all children in the state.

By 2016, there was talk of resurrecting the Alma and Lake View issues because the legislature and Governor Asa Hutchinson had backslid on funding the schools by budgeting school aid according to the state's anticipated revenues rather than according to calculations of the schools' actual needs, as the settlement in the Lake View decisions required.

For additional information:
Dumas, Ernie. “Gap Between Official Policy, Reality at Core of School Funding.” Arkansas Gazette, June 1, 1983, p. 6.

Jim DuPree et al. v. Alma School District No. 30 et al., 651 S.W.2d 90.

Lake View School Dist. No. 25 v. Huckabee, 351 Ark 31, 91 SW3d 472 [2002].

Lake View School District No. 25 v. Huckabee (Lake View 2004), 189 S.W.3d 1 (Ark. 2004).

“Proposed Constitutional Amendments.” Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, September 4, 1996, p. 12A.

Public Service Commission v. Pulaski County Equalization Board, 266 Ark. 64.

“State School Aid Formula Declared Unconstitutional.” Arkansas Gazette, June 1, 1983, pp. 1A, 4A.

Ernest Dumas
Little Rock, Arkansas

Last Updated 9/15/2017

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