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Lawmakers plan to reexamine how state spends money on public schools

Current model hasn’t been altered for nearly 20 years by Neal Earley | May 22, 2023 at 7:21 a.m.
Sen. Jane English, R-North Little Rock, asks a question regarding HB1182 during the Senate session Thursday, Feb. 16, 2023 at the state Capitol. (Arkansas Democrat-Gazette/Staci Vandagriff)

Lawmakers will reexamine how Arkansas spends money on public schools this fall, beginning a process that could change the state's funding formula for the first time in nearly two decades.

Senate Education Chair Jane English, R-North Little Rock, said state legislators will hold meetings this fall to explore overhauling the funding formula for public schools.

"We will look at other funding formulas to see whether there is something [better] that reflects what we're wanting to be doing," English said.

The brief discussion came during a joint meeting of the House and Senate education committees last week, with legislative staff briefing lawmakers about the education adequacy process, a more than yearlong study of public education in Arkansas.

At the end of the process, which will occur in the fall 2024, the Senate and House education committees will create recommendations for how the state should fund public education for the next two years. While lawmakers will use the current funding model while they studies funding for public education, lawmakers will explore alternatives.

"As we begin and proceed through the upcoming adequacy study, we plan to look at additional funding models in a comparative manner to see if there are models or a culmination of models that might be more beneficial to the state of Arkansas," Brian Evans, chair of the House Education Committee, said in a statement.

Rep. Bruce Cozart, R-Hot Springs, sponsored legislation that would have remade how the state allocates dollars to public schools, but it died in the Senate.

Cozart's funding formula would more heavily weigh factors such as the number of special needs students, district size, population density or poverty, and was modeled after a formula adopted in Tennessee. However, how much each factor will be weighted, or how much school districts could receive under the proposed formula, is something Cozart said he plans to work on in the coming months, hoping to present the findings to lawmakers in the fall.

While the House passed Cozart's proposal 83-5, it died in the Senate a few days later, a sign that some in the upper chamber were more hesitant to address the state's complex funding formula on public education.

"I think I didn't have the time to really communicate on the Senate end especially," Cozart said.

The current model dates back to after the Arkansas Supreme Court's ruling in Lake View School District v. Huckabee, which said the state has to provide an adequate education for all students. The funding model is based on a school district with 500 students with schools receiving dollars on a per-student basis.

Sometimes referred to as the matrix, the formula makes suggestions on how school districts should spend state funds on teacher salaries, transportation and facilities, among other items. However, school districts have wide discretion in how they use state funding.

Cozart said the current model under-funds smaller schools, which he said his bill would correct.

"I think the definition of adequacy and the way funds are currently dispersed under adequacy may be an outdated model," said Sen. Kim Hammer, the Senate sponsor of Cozart's funding bill. "You can't just keep pumping out money under an old standard that is outdated."

In April, lawmakers approved a $75 million increase in public education funding for the next school year. The funding amounts to a 2.8% increase in state spending on education for the next school year but was less than what lawmakers recommended in the fall as part of the adequacy process.

The legislation funds a $2-per-hour wage increase for classified school staff and 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 law sets per-pupil funding for the 2023-2024 school year at $7,618 and $7,771 for the 2024-2025 school year.

Print Headline: Lawmakers to look at school funds formula


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