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A recent landmark decision by the Arkansas Supreme Court about the state's immunity from lawsuits shouldn't affect how the state funds education -- at least not for now, Bureau of Legislative Research attorneys said Monday.

The high court's January decision in an Arkansas minimum wage act dispute, Board of Trustees of University of Arkansas v. Matthew Andrews, prompted questions from some lawmakers about the applicability of a 1992 lawsuit that for two decades has directed the state's approach to funding public schools.

In this year's Andrews ruling, the state Supreme Court in a 5-2 decision affirmed the state's constitutional protection from lawsuits in court even in cases where the General Assembly waived the so-called sovereign immunity.

That decision, the bureau's Assistant Director for Legal Services Matthew Miller said, isn't an "apples-to-apples" comparison with Lake View School District No. 25 v. Huckabee, which challenged the constitutionality of Arkansas' public-school funding system.

Under the state Supreme Court's watchful eye, lawmakers passed a flurry of legislation in the early 2000s to address inequities raised in the Lake View case. The specter of another Lake View-like suit has directed education policy decisions for the past decade.

Without the cloud of litigation looming, some lawmakers fear that their colleagues will be emboldened to reduce the state's role in funding public education.

Future rulings may change it, but for now, Miller said, Lake View still applies.

"Is Lake View still good law?" Miller said, testifying before the House and Senate Education committees. "Based on what we currently know, probably yes. We don't have direct precedent, but we'd have to stretch Andrews a long way to reach Lake View and strike it down at this point."

Filed in 1992 and ended in 2007, the Lake View lawsuit was brought by a now-defunct school district in Phillips County. As a result of the high court's ruling in the suit, Arkansas gave education the highest funding priority and began conducting adequacy studies every two years to develop a funding "matrix" to ensure each district received adequate and equitable funding.

Lake View differs from Andrews, Miller said, because it dealt with whether the state was following its constitution; Andrews dealt with a state statute.

However, Miller added that the Andrews decision raises questions about how the Supreme Court would interpret the principle of sovereign immunity in a constitutional challenge like the Lake View case.

"There's currently more that we don't know than we do about the impact of Andrews on future educational challenges," he said.

Sen. Joyce Elliott, D-Little Rock, said Monday's meeting comforted her because it solidified the idea that "there's not a clear path to ignore Lake View," but she remains concerned that lawmakers would consider ignoring the court case's lessons.

Sen. Jane English, R-North Little Rock, chairman of the Senate committee, said Monday's discussion was informational, and there weren't any large-scale changes in the works for the state's public-school funding process.

Rep. Mark Lowery, R-Maumelle, said Monday that there have been discussions about tweaking the funding matrix. He asked Miller, the attorney, if the Andrews decision would give the state cover to make such changes.

Miller deflected, saying additional state Supreme Court rulings would probably be needed before he would know for sure.

"So basically we won't know until somebody files a lawsuit and the Supreme Court decides?" Sen. Jim Hendren, R-Sulphur Springs, asked.

"That would be my story, yes, sir," Miller responded with a smile.

Metro on 04/24/2018

Print Headline: Attorneys say ruling won't affect schools; Lake View still applies, legislators told

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