As he left office in January 1983, Gov. Frank White warned the incoming 74th General Assembly that the state could not continue to support 371 school districts, 10 four-year colleges, six community colleges and 24 vo-tech schools. He opposed raising taxes, and with 46% of the budget already allocated to the public school fund, he saw consolidation of districts as the answer. Incoming Gov. Bill Clinton wanted to enact a wider-sweeping battery of education reforms and was willing to raise taxes to pay for them. But he also expected the state Supreme Court was about to declare the state’s school-funding formula unconstitutional.
That formula tied per-pupil expenditures to the size of a district’s tax base, with wealthier districts getting more aid. A case before the court argued that schools were not providing appropriate education to disadvantaged pupils.
But the court wasn’t likely to rule in DuPree v. Alma School District until after the legislative session. So Clinton held back his proposals. He led the Legislature to repeal parts of the Quality Education Act of 1969 to allow for a 15-member commission that could develop new minimum standards all school districts would have to meet by 1987 — or be forcibly consolidated.
After the court ruled in May as expected, he appointed his wife, Hillary Rodham Clinton, to lead this Education Standards Committee. It held meetings in all 75 counties. It recommended smaller class sizes and advanced math and science courses in high schools, among other mandatory reforms.
Clinton called a special session in the fall to approve the new standards and taxes to pay for them, and he stumped the state in support of school reform. To win public support, he added competency tests for teachers.
The special session lasted 38 days. It approved most of the Clinton plan, but defeated teacher merit pay, a severance tax on gas and a higher corporate tax rate. Raising the sales tax required only a simple majority, so a one-cent sales tax raisefunded the new plans.
Meanwhile, teachers decried the “insulting and degrading” teacher-testing law.
This Page 1 of the Nov. 10, 1983, Arkansas Gazette also reported a verdict in a sensational murder trial.
Mary Lee Orsini, who was serving life without parole in the murder-for-hire of Alice McArthur — her former defense attorney’s wife — was found guilty of murdering her third husband, Ron Orsini. The judge gave her another life sentence. The cases had hitmen, a car bomb, the beating of a popular disc jockey, line dancing … and according to then-Pulaski County Sheriff Tommy Robinson, mobsters.
The state high court later would overturn this conviction over a flaw in the judge’s instructions to the jury. But Orsini served out her first life sentence, dying of an apparent heart attack in prison in 2003.
— Celia Storey
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