School-funds advice given to state committees; larger-scale study among recommendations

A classroom is shown in this 2015 file photo.
A classroom is shown in this 2015 file photo.

The Arkansas House and Senate education committees should consider conducting a larger-scale study of public school funding every six to 10 years -- beyond its review every two years -- and creating an incentive structure to increase the number of highly qualified teachers serving students at small schools and high-need schools, a consultant recommended on Monday.

The consultant also recommended the committees weigh creating a legislative task force to investigate and tackle the out-of-school factors inhibiting performance of high-need students as well as consider revising the funding formula for students in high-poverty districts.

The committees also were urged to reconsider current resource levels in several parts of the school funding formula, or matrix; consider removing special education from the resource matrix and provide funding based on actual special education students served; and change the state's definition of career readiness.

Officials for the consulting firm Augenblick, Palaich and Associates of Denver made the seven recommendations to the House and Senate education committees.

The committees will get a copy of the consultant's report on Dec. 1 to digest it for two weeks, then will hear a presentation from the group before considering accepting the report on Dec. 14, said House committee Chairman Bruce Cozart, R-Hot Springs.

The report will provide a road map for the educational adequacy review in advance of the Arkansas General Assembly's regular session in 2023, Cozart said.

In December, the Arkansas Legislative Council voted to approve a $659,580 consulting contract with the firm to conduct the state's first comprehensive study of public school funding 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 the creation of the education committees' biennial adequacy review that's used by the General Assembly and the governor to make education spending recommendations.

Justin Silverstein, co-chief executive officer of Augenblick, Palaich and Associates, told the House and Senate education committees on Monday that Arkansas is one of less than a handful of states that "actually have real meaning behind your [funding] formula" and make explicit decisions to determine per-pupil foundation funding.

"This study did not ask us to tell you how much you should spend ... and we recognize that it is the Legislature's role to determine adequacy" and that no state has unlimited resources, he said.

Silverstein said the House and Senate education committees "should conduct a larger-scale approach, utilizing at least two adequacy approaches and that you would do this every six to 10 years," in addition to the current two-year adequacy review.

A larger-scale study every six to 10 years is needed because students' tests change, education changes over time, and students' expectations and demographics change, he said.

Silverstein said all aspects of funding, including base, per-student funding and special funding categories, should be considered.

School districts reported needing to use funds from other sources to cover the costs of educating special education and English language-learner students.

Smaller districts reported having a tough time staffing schools at the current matrix funding level and having to redirect funds to meet classroom staffing needs, he said.

Silverstein's group recommended the education committees consider creating an incentive structure to increase the number of highly qualified teachers serving students at high-need schools and small schools.

"There are some incentives, but we were looking at kind of a systemic approach," he said.

Silverstein said access to qualified teachers varies across the state, but "there are some relationships that worry us, especially in the low-income settings and the smaller districts."

He said the House and Senate education committees should consider developing a legislative task force to investigate and address the out-of-school factors that inhibit performance for high-need students in the state.

"What we think really needs to happen is mapping out the full scope of resources that a student needs to come prepared to school and then making some determination of what sits in the K-12 box, what sits in other agencies' purview," Silverstein said.

Educators indicate the most economic disadvantaged students arrive at school needing a full set of other services before they are ready to learn, he said.

The House and Senate education committees also should reconsider the current funding matrix resource levels in several areas, said Amanda Brown, senior associate at Augenblick, Palaich and Associates.

She said the committees should reconsider the current student-to-teacher ratios for students in kindergarten through third grade; the non-core teaching level for high schools; the secretary staffing level; the library and media specialist staffing level; and instructional materials funding in the matrix.

They should also consider identifying a separate line for assistant principals in the funding matrix and adding resources for mental health and school security personnel to the matrix, Brown said.

Silverstein said the committees should also consider removing special education funding from the matrix and provide funding based on actual special education students served.

In addition, he said, the committees should consider changes in the Enhanced Student Achievement funding to address funding "cliffs" created by the current formula, which is based on three different funding tiers.

Brown said the education committees should consider adopting a career readiness definition that includes core academic knowledge and skills, capabilities, behavioral skills and dispositions, and post secondary preparation and planning. "Our recommendation is that the definition is focused on career readiness for all students, as college is just one of several pathways for a career."

In October, the education committees 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.

Most of the increase in state funding would be for increasing foundation per-pupil funding from $6,985 in the current fiscal year 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, according to Bureau of Legislative Research records.

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