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Lawmakers on Tuesday killed a proposal to hire a consultant to study Arkansas' public school funding formula.

The state House and Senate education committees voted against soliciting new proposals from potential consultants. The committee received just one bid earlier this year in response to an initial "request for proposals" and that firm's $943,605 price tag bothered several legislators.

The committee in early May resolved to issue a new request for proposals, but it reversed course Tuesday.

Teacher and administrator groups, in addition to a handful of lawmakers, have been calling for such a study for the better part of the past decade. The last similar review occurred in 2003 after a landmark Arkansas Supreme Court ruling that overhauled Arkansas' public education system.

The committees' co-chairmen, Sen. Jane English, R-North Little Rock, and Rep. Bruce Cozart, R-Hot Springs, have worked with members in recent weeks to narrow the scope of work for the proposed study to drive down costs and ensure that the study wasn't overly broad.

English said Tuesday that the study shouldn't "reinvent the wheel" by completely resetting the state's public school funding formula, but she said a third-party review could find some ways that the formula could be updated.

Rep. Mark Lowery, R-Maumelle, made the motion last year to re-evaluate the funding formula, but he was the primary lawmaker Tuesday to speak against a consulting contract.

Lowery said he didn't want to wait four years to enact any changes prompted by a consultant's study, which wouldn't be ready for legislative consideration until the 2023 regular session.

He and several other lawmakers said they already know they'd like to tweak the way schools receive state funding for transportation and teachers' salaries. Lowery added he'd also like to look at helping especially small school districts that are negatively affected by the way school funding is calculated.

"I think we know what we want to do," Lowery said. "And I don't want to keep kicking the can down the road."

Every two years, the House and Senate education committees examine whether Arkansas' public school funding levels are enough to provide all students with an adequate education.

The formula -- based on the average cost to run a school of 500 students -- stemmed from the 2003 study conducted by a pair of college professors in the shadow of the state Supreme Court's rulings in Lake View School District No. 15 v. Huckabee, which challenged the constitutionality of Arkansas school funding process.

Typically, the legislative panel reviews whether the dollar amounts need to be increased every two years, and while lawmakers have occasionally made small tweaks to the actual formula, it remains largely intact.

Cozart said he was disappointed by Tuesday's decision to forgo hiring a consultant, and he added that it was unlikely the committee would consider the issue again.

He noted that several lawmakers were absent from Tuesday's meeting, and he thought the proposal to seek consulting bids would have passed if all had attended.

"We're back to where we started," Cozart said. "This is something we've wanted to do for the last four to six years. If we'd had more butts in seats, it might've been different."

Some lawmakers have been hesitant to support seeking a third-party review of the funding system, fearing that a consultant may recommend allocating significantly more state dollars to education.

Under the Lake View decision, education must be the state's highest funding priority.

Public schools receive the largest singular chunk of the general revenue. In fiscal 2020, which begins July 1, $2.25 billion of the $5.75 billion general-revenue budget will go to the Public School Fund.

Most of the money is distributed as "foundation funding." That money is unrestricted, meaning school districts may spend it however they see fit, regardless of how much lawmakers calculated was needed for different categories of spending. However, some lawmakers have grown frustrated that many districts don't spend money on the areas for which lawmakers intended.

Metro on 06/12/2019

Print Headline: School-funding study a no-go

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