House approves $75M increase in Arkansas' public education funding, sends bill to Senate

Bill would raise per-student funding by $358 over 2 years

Rep. DeAnn Vaught (left), R-Horatio, talks with Rep. Brian Evans, R-Cabot, during the House session on Tuesday, April 4, 2023, at the state Capitol in Little Rock. 
(Arkansas Democrat-Gazette/Thomas Metthe)
Rep. DeAnn Vaught (left), R-Horatio, talks with Rep. Brian Evans, R-Cabot, during the House session on Tuesday, April 4, 2023, at the state Capitol in Little Rock. (Arkansas Democrat-Gazette/Thomas Metthe)

House lawmakers on Tuesday approved a $75 million increase in public education funding for the next school year, sending the bill to the Senate for further consideration.

As part of the proposal, the bill allocates funding for full-time classified school staff to receive a $2-an-hour raise and a cost-of-living adjustment for teachers. The House voted 77-3 to approve the bill.

House Bill 1688, sponsored by Rep. Brian Evans, R-Cabot, is the Legislature's funding for educational adequacy, a process lawmakers undertake every two years to determine how much to fund public schools. Per-pupil funding is the biggest part of state funding for public schools, which also receive supplemental state and federal funds.

The bill amounts to a 2.8% increase in state funding for public education for the next school year. The bill would increase the per-pupil funding from $7,413 to $7,618 for the 2023-2024 school year and to $7,771 for the 2024-2025 school year. The bill will fund a 1.8% cost-of-living adjustment for teachers and secretaries in fiscal year 2024 and a 2.2% increase in fiscal year 2025.

The bill raises funding for public education by $75 million in fiscal year 2024 and by $132 million in fiscal year 2025, according to an estimate from the Arkansas Department of Education. School districts are funded by the state through a matrix that breaks down how schools should spend the per-pupil dollars they receive from the state. Schools are given wide discretion in how they can spend state funds.

House Minority Leader Tippi McCullough, D-Little Rock, criticized the bill, saying it was less than the $8,129, members of the House Education Committee recommended the state should spend per-student for the 2023-2024 school year.

"A small increase is better than no increase at all, of course," McCullough said. "But this proposed amount doesn't even cover inflation and will not be adequate to meet the additional costs and requirements that schools and districts have."

Rep. Bruce Cozart, R-Hot Springs, told House members the $8,129 per-pupil amount that lawmakers recommended in the fall was mostly because of the proposed $4,000 raises for teachers. But with the recent passage of the LEARNS Act, Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders' education overhaul, the raises are no longer necessary, Cozart said.

Instead, raises for teachers will be funded through the LEARNS Act, which calls for the starting annual salary for teachers to increase from $36,000 to $50,000 and $2,000 raises for teachers making above the minimum.

The bill also calls for state funding for school districts with a high percentage of students in a free and reduced lunch program, also known as Enhanced Student Achievement funding, to remain flat, given the additional money schools will get through the LEARNS Act, Evans said.

LEARNS ACT IMPACT

Evan's bill will have an effect on one of the main features of the LEARNS Act, which will allow students to use 90% of the state's per-pupil funding for education to cover the costs to attend a private or home school. If passed, students would receive a school choice voucher of $6,856 for the 2023-2024 school year and $6,994 for the 2024-2025 school year.

The voucher program, also known as Educational Freedom Accounts, will be phased in over three years starting with the upcoming 2023-2024 school year.

For the 2023-2024 school year, students enrolled at F-rated schools; who are enrolled in kindergarten; who were or are in a foster care program; who have a disability; or who have an active-duty military parent will be given priority for Educational Freedom Accounts.

For the 2024-2025 school year, students who are enrolled in a D-rated school; who have a parent who is a military veteran; or who are children of first-responders could receive a voucher.

By the 2025-2026 school year, each student who is eligible to enroll in a public school will be eligible for a voucher to attend a private or home school, according to the law.