From the Arkansas Statehouse...

Hendren to judges: Get off your duffs.

In Desegregation Agreement, Kim Hendren on 22 January 2009 at 1:42 pm

Lawyers, federal judges, Little Rock politicians: none were safe from the withering criticism of Sen. Kim Hendren in the Joint Budget Committee this morning as he presented a bill to stop federally mandated payments to Pulaski County school districts. The payments are made in fulfillment of a 1989 settlement requiring school desegregation and must continue until the schools are ruled to have achieved unitary status. Appeals in the case are ongoing.

The bill would redirect the payments toward health benefits for public school employees.

Judging from committee commentary, however, Hendren’s measure will face numerous legal difficulties and will have a hard time proceeding.

Hendren’s main argument: the desegregation agreement wastes state money.  He said Arkansas has spent $800 million dollars on the settlement over the past twenty years. Citing an article in today’s Democrat-Gazette on high remedial rates in colleges across the state, he complained that the payments had not improved quality of education. (N.B.: The payments only go to three districts within Pulaski County.)

“If we don’t do something, we’re talking about trillions,” Hendren said.

Hendren also put lawyers and judges in his cross hairs. Lawyers in the case are living off money that should be going for education, he said. And federal judges have waited too long to issue rulings on whether schools are in fact desegregated.

“I support the judiciary, but they need to get off their duffs and get something done,” Hendren said.

Yet even Hendren acknowledged that the bill has a tough road ahead, particularly as it is sure to be unpopular  in Little Rock.

(Read on for the generally cool reception to the proposal.)

Sen. Tracy Steele argued that Hendren had failed to take into account the good the desegregation agreement has done for students. Legislators should be better educated about the agreement, he said. He suggested that the bill should be forwarded to the Education Committee, though no action was taken to that effect.

Sen. Joyce Elliott asked Hendren whether his proposal was an improvement for students. Hendren did not directly address the question during the meeting.

Others questioned the legality of the bill. Some were concerned that the state will be in breach of contract if it stops payments. The result would likely be a lawsuit from the school districts and another round in court.

The bill got a thumbs down from Scott Richardson, the lead lawyer from the attorney general’s office in the desegregation case. “It is my opinion that this bill could cost the state more than it saves,” he told the committee.

No action was taken on the bill. It has been sent to the special language subcommittee of the Joint Budget Committee.

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