The Joint Education Committee of the legislature met today to craft the K-12 schools budget for the coming 2015 session, but punted action on the biggest piece of the puzzle — a cost-of-living increase in the line item for teacher salaries — until a later meeting, to be held on Oct. 27th.

Sen. Joyce Elliott, Vice-Chair of the committee, said that the main reason for the delay is concern over increasing disparities between districts in the beginning salary offered to teachers; rather than an across-the-board increase in the amount allocated for salaries, the committee may recommend an increase aimed at closing that gap.

In 119 many districts in Arkansas, new teachers are offered the minimum amount allowed by state law, $29,244, while some districts provide starting salaries that are 50 percent higher. Springdale, for example, starts its new teachers at $45,820

Elliott said that the committee’s hesitation to increase the salary line item was not driven by recent concerns over available state revenue, since “adequacy” requirements mandate the legislature to base its education budget around the needs of students and schools, rather than considering money constraints.

“It is absolutely not [due to lack of revenue],” she said. “Everything in the public education budget has to be funded first before anything else happens. It has to be based on the evidence we find,” regarding what’s needed to educate students.

The committee also increased some other line items in the education budget’s “foundation funding” amount — a base funding level paid to districts from the state according to student head count — while holding others flat. Jerri Derlikowski, director of education policy for Arkansas Advocates for Children and Families, says that’s a departure from recent years. 

“In past they’ve bumped the whole foundation by 2 percent, and they did not do that this year,” she said.

The most disappointing outcome of today’s meeting, said Derlikowski, was the committee’s refusal to increase the funds that target low-income students, called National School Lunch Act (NSLA) funds. NSLA is one of several “categorical” funding streams distinct from the base foundation amount. The committee did approve 2 percent increases in the categorical streams that fund English Language Learner (ELL) programs and Alternative Learning Environments (ALEs), but not for NSLA.

“They held the NSLA funding flat for the next two years and said again they need to study it, which is what they said the last time, in ’13 and ’14,” Derlikowski said. She said the legislature needs to follow its own staff recommendations that the uses of NSLA funds be more tightly prescribed by the state; districts currently have a great degree of latitude in how they spend their NSLA money, and often do so in ways that might not particularly assist the disadvantaged kids for whom the funds exist in the first place.

“The schools that are using that money pretty freely don’t care if there’s not a COLA as long as they get to keep using it in the manner they want to keep using it,” she explained. “It’s frustrating to see the committee say they’re going to hold it flat because we haven’t made any improvements [in how it’s spent]. There doesn’t seem to be any will to make those changes, but they use that as a reason for not giving it a COLA. This will make four straight years with no increase in NSLA funds.”

Funding for education reporting provided by the Arkansas Public Policy Panel.