Friday, October 28, 2016

Lawmakers consider delivering blow to school funding

Posted By on Fri, Oct 28, 2016 at 5:37 PM

click to enlarge REP. COZART: Recommends flat funding for schools in the second year of the biennium. - ARKANSAS SECRETARY OF STATE
  • REP. COZART: Recommends flat funding for schools in the second year of the biennium.
While all eyes are turned to election drama, potentially troubling developments are afoot at the state Capitol regarding public school funding.

The legislature's joint Education Committee meets on Monday to finalize recommendations for the funding levels required to provide an adequate education for Arkansas students, in advance of the 2017 legislative session. What's at stake is the level of funding for all public schools in Arkansas in 2018 and 2019. For years, the legislature has steadily boosted funding to keep pace with inflation. But under a proposal circulated by Rep. Bruce Cozart (R-Hot Springs), the chair of the House committee on education, schools would see only a 0.71 percent increase in fiscal year 2018 and no increase whatsoever in FY 2019. That's much less than in previous years.

The staff at the Bureau of Legislative Research, which is tasked by the legislature with determining what constitutes "adequate" funding for schools, found that Arkansas schools needed to see a 2.5 percent funding increase to keep up with rising costs and inflation. (Keeping school funding flat effectively constitutes a decrease in real terms when inflation is accounted for.)

It's not clear how much support Cozart's proposal has. Rumor has it that some Republicans in the legislature, despite their party's general fondness for axing public budgets, are unhappy with the idea of shorting schools on cash. And, Democrats still have a strong presence on the Education Committee. We'll see on Monday whether a less stingy proposal emerges. The Arkansas Citizens First Congress is urging a phone campaign to tell legislators to abide by the BLR findings that a 2.5 percent increase is what's needed. (Their full press release is below.)

The rise in school foundation funding in FY 2015 was 2 percent. This was also the final year in which levels were set by the legislature under Democratic Gov. Mike Beebe's administration. In FY 2016 and 2017, the increase was 0.97 percent and 0.94 percent, respectively. (We are currently in FY 17, which runs from summer 2016 to summer 2017.)

Meanwhile, teachers are looking at an increase in health insurance premiums yet again. At 2 percent, it's smaller than in years past — but if this drastic belt-tightening in state education funding comes to past, the rise in health care costs will hurt schools even more.

Note as always that Republican lawmakers are pushing major new tax cuts this session, on top of the major tax cuts passed in 2015.

Here's the Arkansas Citizens First Congress' release:


Please call your lawmakers this weekend and ask them to support the Bureau of Legislative Research's findings that adequate school funding needs a 2.5% increase and to support a needed $20 million increase in Special Education funding. Time is short and your action could make the difference.

This Monday, October 31st, the Education Committees of the Arkansas House and Senate will meet to finalize their recommendations for public school funding for the 2018 and 2019 school years.

The legislatures own experts at the Bureau of Legislative Research found that education funding needs a 2.5% increase to keep minimum adequate education funding even with inflation. So far only one draft proposal has been put before the committees, but it contains dramatically less funding. Instead of the recommended increase of 2.5% for inflation, the current draft proposes an increase of only 0.71% in 2018 and 0% in 2019.

School costs are rising — from salaries to food, inflation is a fact of life for every school. Failing to increase education funding by at least as much as inflation will result in diminished opportunities for students.

You may recall the 2002 Lakeview Supreme Court ruling that found Arkansas' system of education unconstitutionally inadequate and unequal. Part of the resolution of that case was the process of having the Bureau of Legislative Research conduct an annual adequacy report on how much funding the public school system needed, at minimum, to provide an adequate education. Arkansas schools have made dramatic improvements over the past decade because we have invested in research-based best practices. The Arkansas Legislature has scaled back adequacy recommendations in recent years, diminishing school's ability to meet the needs of their students, but this current proposal would take that to a new level.

Funding for kids with special needs is also in jeopardy. Some lawmakers are also considering cutting the needed $20 million increase for Special Education students recommended by the Legislative Task Force on Special Education to improve services to children with special needs. The Special Education Task Force found significant deficiencies in the educational opportunity that children with special needs receive in Arkansas and the proposed $20 million increase in funding is a key first in improving their lives.

The draft proposal also ignores the 2% increase in insurance premiums for teachers and school employees, effectively giving them a pay cut of 2%.

Why would they consider education spending cuts? Tax cuts are a bigger priority. The Legislature has prioritized tax cuts, mostly targeted to upper income Arkansans. They passed well over $100 million in tax cuts for the wealthy in the last legislative session, and there are proposals for over $100 million in cuts for the coming session. Budgets are statements of values, and the legislature has been prioritizing tax cuts, mostly benefiting a small few, that have to be paid for by spending cuts elsewhere, including the needs of children and schools.

Arkansas must maintain our commitment to investing in quality public education. The Committees will finalize their recommendations on Monday, October 31.

Please call your lawmakers now, especially if they serve on the House or Senate Education Committee, and tell them to support quality public schools by implementing the full 2.5% adequacy increase recommended by the Bureau of Legislative Research and the full $20 million special education increase recommended by the Special Education Task Force. See a map of the Senate Committee and all of their contact information here, and here is a map of the House Education Committee and their contact information.

Senate Education Committee:
Jane English, Chair 501-257-7670
Uvalde Lindsey, Vice Chair 479-530-6082
Eddie Cheatham, 870-415-0464
Alan Clark, 501-262-3360
Jim Hendren, 479-787-6222
Blake Johnson, 870-323-1766
Bobby Pierce, 870-942-1031
Eddie Joe Williams, 501-286-9366

House Education Committee:
Bruce Cozart, Chair 501-627-3232
Charles Armstrong, 501-224-5071
Scott Baltz, 870-378-1380
Nate Bell, 479-234-2092
Gary Deffenbaugh, 479-719-8197
Charlotte Douglas, 479-276-7777
Jon Eubanks, 479-438-0533
Jeremy Gillam, 501-729-0042
Michael John Gray, 870-347-6000
Justin Harris, N/A
Grant Hodges, 479-381-9513
Greg Leding, 479-966-9201
Mark Lowery, 501-837-5221
Mark McElroy, 870-644-3822
Reginald Murdock, 870-295-3208
James Ratliff, 501-454-5200
Warwick Sabin, 501-349-9012
John Walker, 501-614-9772

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