The Senate and House Education Committees have begun work on the next adequacy determination for public schools.
Funding levels for this year and next year have already been set, which means that the legislative adequacy study now underway is going to determine school funding levels for fiscal years 2020 and 2021.
The adequacy study includes visits to selected schools across Arkansas, as well as surveys of superintendents, principals and teachers. It also includes data from the Arkansas Public School Computer Network, which keeps records on student achievement, school finances and facilities.
By November 1, the Education Committees will decide whether current adequacy funding levels need to be amended. If so, those changes would be considered in the 2018 fiscal session. A final report will be due by November 1, 2018, for consideration by the legislature in the next regular session in 2019.
Determining an adequate level of school funding is at the top of the legislatures’ priorities every year. In 2002 the Arkansas Supreme Court ruled that school funding did not comply with mandates in the state Constitution that every child should receive an adequate education.
The court’s ruling cited “abysmal” rankings in national rankings of schools, the tremendous need for remediation by college freshmen, wide disparities of teacher salaries within the state, lack of opportunities for special needs children and children in high poverty areas and a failure to address the needs of schools in high growth areas. The court clarified that it was the responsibility of state government to ensure the adequacy of education across Arkansas.
In a lengthy special session and in subsequent regular sessions, the legislature adopted more rigorous standards and dramatically increased funding for yearly operations of schools and to improve school equipment and facilities.
In 2007 the Supreme Court ruled that the legislature’s actions complied with constitutional mandates on education. Since then Arkansas has moved up in national assessments of public schools, has increased the percentage of adults who graduate from high school and increased teacher salaries.
The school funding lawsuit that prompted the Supreme Court’s rulings was known as the Lake View case. The Lake View School District was a small, rural district in eastern Arkansas that has since been consolidated with Barton-Lexa, a neighboring district.
The adequacy report will be the cornerstone for writing the state budget, because one outcome of the Lake View case is that schools must be funded first. Also, school funding is protected from budget cuts during periods of economic stagnation.
The Education Committees’ funding recommendations for adequacy will serve as a basis for the governor’s proposed budget for education. Adequate funding levels must be based on evidence of the needs of school districts, and not based on the amount of money available after political give-and-take among the various state agencies that are financed by the state.
About 44 percent of Arkansas tax revenue goes to education from kindergarten through grade 12. State appropriations account for roughly half of the school districts’ revenue, with local property taxes generating about 40 percent and federal funding about 10 percent.
The total of state and local foundation funding in Arkansas is about $3 billion, which this year amounts to $6,646 per student. Additional funding is allotted to schools for students with special needs.