September 21, 2023


education gives you strength

State panels favor funding increase for schools

The House and Senate education committees Tuesday recommended an increase of $99.7 million in state funding for public education in fiscal 2022 and another increase of $86.9 million in fiscal 2023.

Fiscal 2022 starts July 1, 2021, and fiscal 2023 starts July 1, 2022.

In a voice vote with no audible dissenters, the legislative panels made this recommendation in their biennial adequacy review to Republican Gov. Asa Hutchinson and the Republican-dominated Legislature.

The review began under 2003 legislation passed in the wake of the Arkansas Supreme Court’s Lake View School District vs. Huckabee decision that found the state’s education funding system was inadequate and unconstitutional.

In fiscal 2021, the public school fund is to receive $2.2 billion in state general tax revenue based on the latest revenue forecast. Information about total state funding — including federal money — for public schools in fiscal 2021 was unavailable through the Bureau of Legislative Research on Tuesday afternoon.

Afterward, Richard Abernathy, executive director of the Arkansas Association of Educational Administrators, said, “I am ecstatic” with the committees’ recommendation.

“This is the most money that school districts have received in years and coming at a time when schools are really struggling, and I’m very, very pleased with the recommendation that has come out,” he said.

However, the recommendation must first be approved by the Legislature and governor.

Department of Education Secretary Johnny Key, said in an interview that the committees’ recommendations “are very comprehensive from a standpoint of just a financial boost to schools.

“I’m still a little confused about some of the categorical [funding] changes, but continuing to talk with the chairs and understand … where they are headed with some of the changes,” he said.

At the outset of Tuesday’s meeting, House Education Committee Chairman Bruce Cozart, R-Hot Springs, said he and Senate Education Committee Chairwoman Jane English, R-North Little Rock, developed these recommendations “after consulting with different people in the industry of education” and the Bureau of Legislative Research.

“A lot of different things went into some of the numbers we put in here,” Cozart said.

Rep. Brian Evans, R-Cabot, said, “I believe that collectively, as input has been received by several of those in this room, that there have been exceptional strides in many areas, not all areas.

“There are areas on this that I personally would like to see much more funding … things that would affect my district,” he said before making a motion for the committees to approve the proposed recommendations.

“However, after months of meeting with this committee, I think we are at a point where … we must continue to make steps,” Evans said.

But Sen. Joyce Elliott, D-Little Rock, said, “My big objection is the fact we got brand-new numbers today, and we are supposed to just say, ‘OK, that’s it.’

“I know it is not going to be perfect, but we always get ourselves to a point where we get to the bottom line,” and lawmakers rush to make recommendations, Elliott said.

The two committees called for increasing the foundation per-pupil funding from $6,985 in the current fiscal year, 2021, to $7,131 in fiscal 2022 and to $7,281 in fiscal 2023.

The increase in the foundation funding would be $69.6 million, or 2.1%, the first year and then $71.5 million, or 2.1%, the next year, based on Bureau of Legislative Research records.

Under the committees’ recommendation, school districts also would get $8 million more each fiscal year to help cover the cost of their increased contributions to the Arkansas Teacher Retirement System.

The combination of the foundation funding increase and the adjustment for increased retirement contributions would be 2.3% increases each year.

Those would be the largest percentage increases since a 2.37% increase to $5,528 per student in fiscal 2006 and a 2.42% increase to $5,662 per student in fiscal 2007, said Julie Holt, administrator of policy analysis and research for the Bureau of Legislative Research, after the committees’ meeting.

The committees also called for setting aside $15 million a year in both fiscal years to help school districts cover the cost of increasing minimum teacher pay from $31,800 to $36,000 a year by 2023, as required under Act 170 of 2019.

That teacher pay funding boost would be in addition to the Education Department’s plan to distribute $60 million over four years to help districts cover the cost of raising their starting teachers’ salaries to the minimum.

Rep. Mark Lowery, R-Maumelle, made a motion for the committees to approve the proposed recommendations of the chairmen for the overall funding increase, but after removing the proposed $15 million a year. His motion died for lack of a second.

The Education Department has about $35 million left over from the original $60 million. School districts were notified of their allocated amount at the beginning of the four-year period and given the option of receiving funding over a period ranging from one to four years, said department spokeswoman Alisha Lewis.

“So the funds remaining are already allocated, just waiting to be distributed based on the district’s preferred timeline,” Lewis said after the committees’ meeting.

Cozart, the House committee chairman, told lawmakers that the $15 million a year “is to help the schools that are going to be on the cliff when the $60 million goes away.

“They are going to drop off that cliff, and they are going to have massive funding issues,” he said.

Cozart said the enhanced salary funding proposal was developed by a committee of school district superintendents that Abernathy formed.

“It goes directly to the teachers,” he said.

Lowery said Cozart “asked Richard Abernathy to put together a group to come up with some kind of solution [and] that charge was not given to any of us.

“This is the first time we have heard of that solution,” he said.

But Cozart said he wasn’t prepared to present the proposal before Tuesday.

Lowery said, “That’s my frustration is we get to this at the eleventh hour.

“We have this constitutional deadline, and we are not involved in those working group discussions, so that some of us could have come back with a counterproposal,” he said.

But Cozart said, “I believe that I put it out to every one of you at the very start at the House end … that if you have anything you wanted to talked about, anything you wanted to do on this [foundation funding] matrix to bring it to me, let’s talk about it.

“I have heard but from a very few, so this is what we’ve come up with, a very few,” he said.

“As you know, it is going to take a lot of work to pull teacher salaries out of there and make that formula work,” Cozart said.

Regarding the $15 million proposal, Abernathy told lawmakers, “When you raise the minimum teacher salary schedule, it has a bigger impact on small schools than it does the larger schools because typically your larger schools already are above that.

“This [proposal] in my opinion goes directly at the heart of [the Lake View ruling], that we are trying to help the smaller school pay their teacher salaries, but still have enough money to implement academic programs, etc., for the kids, so I think you have a bigger problem if the small schools are not able to pay the salaries,” he said.

The formula for allocating the $15 million a year factors in school enrollment, medium family income in a district based on the U.S. Census information and how much one mill raises for a school district, Abernathy said. “It helps small schools with a low mill value, that has low family income in that school district.”

The committees also recommended increasing funding for:

• Alternative learning environments, from $4,700 per student in fiscal 2021 to $4,794 and to $4,889 the next two years. Those are 2% increases.

• English language learners, from $352 per student in fiscal 2021 to $359 and $366 the next two years. Those are 2% increases.

• Enhanced student achievement funding from $1,576 per student in fiscal 2021 to $1,594 and $1,612 the next two years, for districts in which more than 90% qualify for free and reduced-price lunches under the National School Lunch Act.

For districts in which between 70% and 90% qualify for free and reduced-price lunches, the funding would go from $1,051 per student in fiscal 2021 to $1,063 to $1,075 the next two years.

In districts in which fewer than 70% of students qualify for free and reduced-price lunches, funding would go from $526 per student in fiscal 2021 to $532 in fiscal 2022 and to $538 in fiscal 2023.

The increases are 1.16 % a year.

• Special-education catastrophic funding from $13.02 million in fiscal 2021 to $13.5 million in fiscal 2022 and to $13.99 million in fiscal 2023.

• Professional learning communities, from $12.5 million in fiscal 2021 to $14.5 million in fiscal 2022 and to $16.5 million in 2023.

• Boosting transportation funding from $5 million in fiscal 2021 to $6 million in fiscal 2o22 and to $7.2 million in fiscal 2023.

Rep. Jim Dotson, R-Bentonville, asked what “are we going to do about the ongoing [personal protective equipment] expenses” for school districts. The equipment would be used during the coronavirus pandemic.

Cozart said federal coronavirus relief funds have been tapped to purchase as much personal protective equipment as possible.

“That is going to be an ongoing thing,” he said. “There are a lot of things we talked about that are going to be ongoing, and up and coming that are not in this [foundation funding] matrix. … That is something that we might come have come back and revisit.”

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