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story.lead_photo.caption A view of the Arkansas State Capitol building, looking west.

Lawmakers still can't agree on whether they should hire a consultant to study Arkansas' public education funding methods, but debate raged on at the state Capitol on Thursday.

The House and Senate Education committees met for the first time since a legislative oversight panel last week rejected their request to hire Denver-based Augenblick, Palaich and Associates to study school funding.

The committees on Thursday only discussed the matter, leaving any action for a future meeting in the next month or two, but members of both parties expressed frustration with the process that has split members in recent months.

Rep. Stephen Meeks, R-Greenbrier, noted that Arkansas is consistently ranked as one of the worst states when it comes to public education. He disagreed that the committee should forgo hiring a consultant and continue making minor tweaks to the education funding formula that was developed in 2003. A consultant, he said, could advise the Legislature on a "paradigm shift."

"Otherwise, we'll continue tweaking around the edges," Meeks said. "We'll continue being 45th, and we'll continue going back to our constituents, making excuses for why we're one of the lowest in the country instead of putting forth the effort and doing what's required to become one of the best states in the country."

Meanwhile, several House members who oppose hiring a consultant argued that lawmakers already know where the weaknesses in the funding formula are, and that they must simply find the will to fix them. Rep. Mark Lowery, R-Maumelle, said, for example, that transportation funding should be reworked and greater consideration is possibly needed for schools with fewer than 500 students.

Opponents of contracting with a consulting firm have also expressed concerns that such a review could include recommendations for large spending increases, which they fear will prompt lawsuits.

"The devil we know is better than the devil we don't know," Lowery said during Thursday's meeting. "I'm not saying what we're doing now is a devil. It's just what we know, and there's great benefit in that."

Consensus has formed among most members on the education committees in recent years that a comprehensive study of education funding is needed, and teacher and superintendent groups agree.

Every two years, the committees make education spending recommendations to the governor and Legislature. The process was developed in 2003 in cooperation with two college professors who conducted a study in the wake of the Arkansas Supreme Court's Lake View School District No. 25 v. Huckabee decision that deemed the state's school funding model unconstitutional.

The committees review that formula between each regular legislative session, typically making small tweaks, but it remains largely the same as it was when it was developed.

The education committees voted earlier this month to hire Augenblick, Palaich and Associates for $659,580.

It had also considered a $499,236 bid from Shuls and Associates of St. Louis, but that bid was ultimately rejected by the education committees.

Such contracts must go before the Arkansas Legislative Council, and last week that body's Policy Making Subcommittee rejected the education committees' request to hire Augenblick, Palaich and Associates. Instead, the committee voted to only allow the Augenblick, Palaich and Associates contract to move forward if the education committees would also hire Shuls and Associates.

However, the full Arkansas Legislative Council last week rejected both proposals.

The subcommittee's actions angered members of the education committees, who said that the subcommittee had overstepped and usurped the education committees.

"I am very frustrated with this entire Legislature, frankly, at this point in time," Rep. Jana Della Rosa, R-Rogers, said. "I think this motion to accept both of the contracts resulted in a breakdown in all the work -- and I mean all the work -- that we have been coming here to do just got nulled and void. And it wasted my time, and it wasted taxpayers' dollars."

The House Education Committee chairman, Rep. Bruce Cozart, R-Hot Springs, said he didn't think the Policy Making Subcommittee's vote necessarily meant it would again reject the education's committees' request to hire a consultant if that's what the latter ultimately decides.

The education committees on Thursday discussed hiring both firms, but that idea lacks widespread support, with most members preferring to hire one or the other.

"I cannot go back to my district and say we're going to pay $1.3 million in taxpayer dollars because we couldn't agree, and we're going to duplicate the work," Della Rosa said. "How can I look my constituents in the eyes and say that?"

Rep. Jon Eubanks, R-Paris, said he thought the proposed studies were too broad, and he'd prefer a study that would strictly look at funding equity and adequacy and how other states fund education.

Rep. Reginald Murdock, D-Marianna, criticized opponents of hiring a consultant who said that they feared a firm would say that the state wasn't spending enough on education, saying it took audacity to say "we don't want to know the truth."

"Term limits, please come and get us," he said.

Metro on 11/22/2019

Print Headline: State Capitol's school-fund split lingers


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