LITTLE ROCK – Since its creation in 2005, the state’s program to pay for school facilities has paid local school districts more than $930 million and committed to paying $283 million by the end of 2019.
School districts match the state dollars, and since 2005 the combined amount of spending on new school facilities is $2.54 billion.
Several types of projects qualify for facilities funding. A common type is construction that makes sure school buildings are safe, warm and dry. Those projects could be new buildings, or they could be replacements of a school’s heating, air conditioning, fire alarms systems or roofs.
Also qualifying are new facilities made necessary by growth in enrollment. Other projects add space for academics or to convert space into an academic area.
It is called the Academic Facilities Partnership Program and it is for major renovations and new construction projects, not for general repair and maintenance. For example, projects costing more than $150,000 typically qualify for funding. Another measure is that projects qualify if their cost is more than $300 per each pupil.
As a consequence of the Lake View school funding lawsuit, the legislature determines adequate funding levels for public schools every year. The lawsuit was filed by a small, rural school district and it challenged the existing school funding formula as inequitable and inadequate. A court ruling in favor of the Lake View district concluded that not every school in Arkansas had equal opportunities to build, renovate or maintain facilities.
The court ruled that under the state Constitution, it is the legislature’s duty to provide substantially equal buildings and equipment for academic instruction, even in schools in relatively poor areas of Arkansas.
In 2003 the legislature created a special committee to study the facilities needs of schools, and in 2005 lawmakers created the funding program.
The agenda of the Senate Committee on Education had an update on facilities funding, which was prepared by legislative staff.
Another result of the Lake View lawsuit has been increased statewide funding for alternative learning environments (ALE) in every school district. Students are sent to an ALE for various reasons, such as pregnancy, disruptive behavior and homelessness if those reasons are a factor in the students’ persistent lack of academic progress.
The state distributes money for ALE to schools in addition to the basic school funding known as foundation aid. This year that amount is $26.4 million, or $4,640 per student in ALE programs. About 5,500 students in Arkansas are placed in ALE classes.
The state Education Department recommends that no more than 2 percent or 3 percent of a district’s students be placed in alternative learning environments. Some students are in ALE programs for only part of the day and spend the remainder of their time in traditional classes.
Schools write a specific learning plan for each student, with academic goals and expectations of improved behavior. Last year, about a fourth of the students returned to their school’s traditional classrooms.
Students in alternative learning environments tend to have lower scores on standardized tests, and to drop out of high school at higher rates than the student body as a whole.