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Study on Arkansas schools' funding now a go; legislators OK $659,580 contract

by Hunter Field | December 21, 2019 at 9:05 a.m.
A classroom is shown in this 2015 file photo.

Arkansas will have its first comprehensive study of public school funding in nearly two decades after all.

The back-and-forth, will-they-or-won't-they process ended Friday when the Arkansas lawmakers approved a $659,580 consulting contract with Augenblick, Palaich and Associates of Denver.

The firm will work with the House and Senate education committees to study the committees' "adequacy" process, which is conducted every two years to make public school funding recommendations.

The debate over hiring a consulting firm for the study divided the General Assembly in recent months, and the Arkansas Legislative Council's final approval on Friday even overrode the recommendation of one of its own subcommittees, which earlier in the week voted against hiring Augenblick, Palaich and Associates.

"It took a lot of work," said the House Education Committee chairman, Bruce Cozart, R-Hot Springs, who has been pushing for an updated study. "I'm happy about it. There'll probably be some things we'll have to ask for them to do and not to do, but we'll probably meet with them first in January to discuss all that."

Augenblick, Palaich and Associates' study will include input from education officials around the state, a review of academic research and examinations of successful school districts in Arkansas, according to the consultants' proposal.

It will be the first such study commissioned by the state since 2003, when two college professors were hired to do a similar study after the Arkansas Supreme Court's landmark ruling in Lake View School District No. 25 v. Huckabee that deemed the state's school-funding model unconstitutional.

That study led to creation of the education committees' biennial adequacy review that's used by the General Assembly and governor to make education spending recommendations.

Gov. Asa Hutchinson has mostly stayed out of the matter, saying that he deferred to the Legislature to decide if a consultant was needed.

The school-funding recommendations are based on a formula that was developed in 2003. Small tweaks are typically made to the formula every two years, but it remains largely the same at it was 16 years ago.

Education groups have pushed for an adequacy study for several years, arguing that a fresh look is needed in the face of an education landscape that has changed over the past two decades.

"We are very proud of the [Arkansas Legislative Council] backing the Education Committee's recommendation to conduct an Adequacy study," Richard Abernathy, executive director of the Arkansas Association of Educational Administrators, said Friday. "Our current model has served our kids well over the past 15-plus years, but there needs to be some adjustments as schools are dealing with issues that were not around 15 years ago. We look forward to working with legislators and [Augenblick, Palaich and Associates] on the process to move Arkansas forward and ensure quality education into the future."

The Arkansas Education Association also commended lawmakers for approving the contract.

"During adequacy hearings last year, legislators made it clear that the current system is falling short, forcing school districts to shift money across categories to cover the true cost of educating Arkansas's students," said Executive Director Tracey-Ann Nelson. "Every child in Arkansas deserves a great education, and we hope this study will provide the information our lawmakers need to ensure our schools have the resources needed for student success as well as a thriving statewide public school system."

The contract had faced some skeptics in the Legislature who feared that Augenblick, Palaich and Associates would recommend large spending increases that could trigger a redo of the Lake View lawsuit. The contract language was tweaked earlier this year to preclude any consultant from providing exact dollar recommendations to alleviate those concerns, but some lawmakers said they felt recommendations to increase spending would be inevitable.

Other lawmakers preferred hiring another company that bid on the project -- Shuls and Associates of St. Louis. The Missouri firm said that it could do the work for $499,236.

A proposal passed in the Legislative Council's Policy Making Subcommittee that would have required the House and Senate Education committees to hire both companies, but it failed to gain enough support before the full council or the education committees.

Rep. Jim Dotson, R-Bentonville, said Friday that he opposed hiring only Augenblick, Palaich and Associates because the viewpoint of only one consultant would be provided. Dotson said he preferred hiring both to get a balance of takes on education.

Dotson said he also would have been OK with no consultant and instead asking a variety of experts to testify to the education committees about school funding. The General Assembly used a similar process to study tax changes before the start of the 2019 legislative session.

"[Augenblick, Palaich and Associates] in most of the states they been in have had at best mixed results as far as their recommendations," Dotson said. "For the most part, their recommendations have been for more programs, more expenses, more red tape that haven't necessarily shown better outcomes."

With legislative leaders from both the House and Senate on board, the contract passed through Legislative Council on Friday.

House Speaker Matthew Shepherd, R-El Dorado, had supported last month a "compromise" to hire both companies, but he said that he decided to respect the education committees' will after they made clear this week that they thought Augenblick, Palaich and Associates was best suited for the work.

The Colorado firm is one of only a handful of consultants that study state education spending on a large scale. It has worked in all 50 states, including adequacy studies in more than 20 states, over the past 40 years.

Augenblick, Palaich and Associates' final report is due at the end of 2020, and it could form the basis for legislation in the 2021 session.

A Section on 12/21/2019

Print Headline: Study on Arkansas schools' funding now a go

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