LITTLE ROCK - The Senate and House Education Committees recommended an increase in public school funding of between 1.8 percent and 2.5
percent, which would be sufficient for school districts to provide a
constitutionally adequate education to Arkansas students.
The legislature will use the recommendation when writing budgets for the next two fiscal years. Based on the experience of the past few years, schools can expect an increase of close to 2 percent. A 1.8 percent increase would amount to $56.6 million. A 2.5 percent increase would be $78.4 million.
To determine how much state funding is needed to adequately fund public education, legislative staff gathered information from all 239 school superintendents in Arkansas. They also interviewed 74 principals, chosen at random. Also, they used data from the state Education Department, from other states and from national organizations.
The Arkansas Constitution requires the state to provide a "general, suitable and efficient system of free public schools." Several state Supreme Court rulings have clarified the extent of that constitutional provision. The most recent, and one of the most far-reaching, was the Supreme Court's ruling in the Lake View school funding case. It lasted 15 years and prompted the legislature to adopt more rigorous education standards and to greatly increase funding of schools. In 2007 the court ruled that the Arkansas system of public education was constitutional.
One of the state's continuing obligations is to maintain adequate school funding, and to determine a level of adequate funding based on evidence.
The Supreme Court ruling in the Lake View case made it clear that the legislature may not fund schools depending on how much state revenue is available, or how much revenue is remaining after other services have been funded. Education has top priority in state funding.
Legislators must rely on evidence to set adequate funding levels, and then they must provide that amount of funding. In the event that cuts to the state's balanced budget are necessary, due to economic downturns, those cuts must come from other areas in state government such as prisons and human services.
The main source of school funding is "foundation funding," which is distributed on a per pupil basis. This school year school districts get $6,267 per student.
There are four other main categories of funding, and school districts receive bonus funding for each student a) who requires an alternative learning environment, b) who must learn English as a foreign language and c) whose family has low income. The fourth category is for professional development of teachers and classified personnel. When educators and lawmakers discuss "categorical funding," they are referring to those funding categories.
The increases in school funding recommended by the Education Committees will come partly from state general revenue, which is generated by state sales and income taxes. It also will come from growth in local property taxes, referred to as URT, for Uniform Rate of Tax.
Members of the Education Committees expressed interest in looking into the finances of school districts that have accumulated large funding balances, especially when those balances result from not spending all their categorical funding each year.
Legislators have heard from superintendents on the lack of bandwidth, a need which is getting more urgent as schools add computers. Also, some districts would like additional transportation funding to be included in the pool of adequacy funding.