With the endless debate on the private option Medicaid expansion eclipsing most other issues this fiscal session, it’s been easy to forget that Arkansas’s spending on health care remains far outweighed by the largest component of the budget — schools. Education remains at the center of state public policy, and although the legislature did not make any sweeping changes to the school system within the limited confines of the fiscal session, there’s plenty on the horizon. Expect every measure that failed in 2014 to re-emerge in 2015, if not sooner. These were the most important developments in K-12 education to emerge from the Capitol in the session that just ended.
*Pre-K funding stays flat for seventh straight year as some providers close doors.
Progressives (and a good deal of others) see universal pre-K as the next frontier in education policy, but funding for the state’s early childhood program — Arkansas Better Chance (ABC) — has failed to even keep pace with inflation. The lack of cost of living adjustment to the program since 2008 has hurt preschool providers, especially when paired with cuts to Head Start. Meanwhile, federal, state, and local policymakers across the country are pointing to evidence that investments in pre-K create a huge payoffs for children in terms of academic performance, behavioral health, and social well-being into adulthood.
A last-minute appeal for a $2 million boost to the ABC budget by Sen. Joyce Elliott (D – Little Rock) failed in the Joint Budget Committee, though on a narrower vote than many expected. “It would not have hired anybody or added new things,” said Elliott of the $2 million. “You think of a private provider out there trying to survive — they’re likely going to have to cut back some of their numbers, or if a child ages out of the program they probably can’t replace that child. Or they have to lay off staff. So this was just trying to maintain things.”
Elliott’s proposal would have dipped into surplus funds, which were carefully guarded from various spending proposals by the Republican leadership. Rep. John Burris (R-Harrison) called Elliott’s program “worthy” but voted against it in the name of fiscal restraint. Most legislators on the committee simply refrained from voting at all rather than giving a clear thumbs down. Uncourageous though that may be, it’s also perhaps an indication that the issue has legs. “At least it sets the stage for something in 2015,” said Elliott.
*Charter schools get extra facilities money.
The governor requested $10 million in surplus money for a new revolving fund to finance facilities and improvements for charter schools; Speaker Davy Carter (R-Cabot) and Sen. Jonathan Dismang (R – Beebe) pared that proposal down to $5 million. It will be matched 1:1 by a grant from the Walton Family Foundation.
Charter advocates say this measure only levels the playing field for charters, which aren’t able to levy millages to fund capital improvements in the way that traditional public schools can do. Those opposed to the facilities proposal question why the state is providing more money to charters at a time when building maintenance for traditional school districts is flagging.
“We’re not in any way opposed to charter schools,” said Jerri Derlikowski, of Arkansas Advocates for Children and Families. “But that same level of concern was not put forward for our traditional schools’ facilities. The one time sum we got in 2008 [for public schools] has been spent down and we also had a cut to facilities funding as a result of the teachers’ health insurance solution….we’re calling for equal consideration.”
*Broadband grants for local schools
Five million dollars in surplus was allocated to help rural school districts access faster internet, a proposition made more appealing by a federal match of up to 4-to-1. Extra motivation: laying broadband cable to rural schools helps rural hospitals, universities, and households as well. Still, the the fiscal hawks in the Republican leadership cut this initial governor’s request in half, from $10 million initially.
It’s maybe a little surprising there was no real opposition to the supplemental appropriation, considering what is motivating this broadband expansion in the first place. Under the new Common Core education standards being implemented in Arkansas and most other states, student testing will be administered online. That requires a significant bandwidth upgrade for most rural districts. On the rightward fringes of the Republican party, there is still passionate opposition to Common Core, as evidenced by Tea Party favorite Rep. Randy Alexander’s (R – Springdale) bill to defund implementation of the new standards in Arkansas. (It was shot down by Republican leadership in committee.)
For that matter, criticism of Common Core-based assessments from across the political spectrum has grown in other states as rollouts of new tests have ran into problems. In Arkansas there is still a general consensus around implementing and testing the standards, but that can’t be taken for granted.
*More oversight of funding for poor students (NSLA) is punted
In addition to the “foundation funding” that districts receive per student, they also get a variety of other “categorical” education revenues from the state. One of the most important is NSLA funds, which are provided to districts based on the number of low-income students they serve. (NSLA stands for “National School Lunch Act”, but the funding itself doesn’t pay for actual school lunches; it’s thus named only because the funds are based on the number of kids in the district receiving free or reduced lunch.)
The point of NSLA funding is that students from poorer families often have greater needs. But, in the name of granting local budgetary control to districts, there’s little accountability to ensure NSLA programs are spent on programs that actually benefit those needy kids in a targeted way. In a February meeting of Joint Ed, it was mentioned that a 2006 study found only 11.5% of NSLA funds were going towards activities recommended by the state’s outside education consultants. In 2013, the legislature passed an act that required the Education committee to make recommendations about how to improve NSLA expenditures during the 2014 fiscal session. But when the committee met in February it declined to issue any recommendations at all. “We’re not stopping work on this — we’re just not ready to make changes during the fiscal session,” said Senate Chair Johnny Key (R – Mountain View).
Derlikowski, of Arkansas Advocates, says the committee’s failure to make changes to NSLA was disappointing, especially considering legislative staff have issued concrete suggestions about changes that need to be made to NSLA. “That research says that the best use of that funding is tutoring, summer and afterschool programs, and pre-K programs…[The committee] had this information over a year ago and they said they wanted to wait another year, which was understandable — but that year passed, and they still said they hadn’t had time to do anything.
*Teachers’ insurance is still in dire trouble; expect another special session.
Last fall, a special session of the legislature plowed $43 million into the beleaguered fund for public school employees’ health insurance to avoid a catastrophic 50 percent rise in employee premiums. Numbers provided this session indicate the same deadly adverse selection trends are continuing: teachers keep ditching their costly insurance, the risk pool keeps growing less healthy, and money flowing in can’t match payments flowing out.
The chair of the legislative task force created to study the problem, Sen. Jim Hendren (R – Gravette), said in a February meeting, “if we don’t put any [new] money in the system, we’re looking at a 40 percent increase [in premiums] next January.” That projected increase will surely only grow over the course of 2014. The task force is having a crucial meeting in April to discuss data it’s currently collecting and consider next steps. Now that the fiscal session has come and gone without any new action, though, a repeat of last year’s events seems inevitable unless another special session is convened at some point before the end of the year