By Nov. 1 — tomorrow — the House and Senate education committees were supposed to issue recommendations on how to adequately fund Arkansas’s public schools over the next two years.
But after two failed attempts this afternoon, today’s joint education committee meeting ended without any budgetary recommendation for the General Assembly to consider in advance of the 2017 regular session, which begins in January.
The “adequacy” process for education funding, which occurs every two years, establishes the cornerstone of the state budget. Typically, it works like this. For months in advance, staffers at the Bureau of Legislative Research pore over reams of information collected from hundreds of school districts around the state to calculate the money an average school requires: for teacher salaries, for instructional materials, for maintenance and operations, for transportation, and so on. The fall before the session begins, BLR staffers present their findings to the joint education committee in the form of a draft report (here’s this year’s). The legislators on the education committee then finalize a set of recommendations about what money is required to provide an “adequate education” to Arkansas students; the rest of the state budget is built around these numbers.
This year, Republican lawmakers departed significantly from the BLR staff findings and put forward recommendations that kept funding increases at levels too low to keep pace with inflation. Democrats, who as of now still command a substantial minority on the education committee, refused to go along.
Teaching salaries were one key sticking point for the Democrats. Another was catastrophic special education funding, which is provided to schools with students with unusually expensive special needs (kids who might need a full-time nursing assistant, for example).
Earlier this month, Democratic Sen. Uvalde Lindsey of Fayetteville championed a $20 million increase in catastrophic special ed money over the biennium, which would bring it in line with the funding needs reported by schools regarding that line item. Lindsey’s increase was congruent with the BLR staff findings. (The BLR report states that “in 2014-15, the eligible expenditures totaled more than $30 million, while less than $11 million in funding was available for districts incurring these expenditures.”) His proposal passed out of committee with little controversy at the time. But today, Republicans tried to dial back that vote, stripping Lindsey’s $20 million increase out of the recommendations. Lindsey was among those voting down the Republican recommendations today.
Lindsey said it was “unprecedented” for the education committee to not agree on adequacy recommendations. He had to vote “no,” he said, simply because “the proposal laid on the table by the [Republican] majority was not adequate.”
Now what happens? According to the committee chair, Rep. Bruce Cozart (R-Hot Springs), the governor can effectively make his own adequacy recommendations — informed by the BLR staff findings — as part of his larger budget-making process. But will the courts accept that? The reason the adequacy process exists at all is because of the 2003 Lake View case, in which the state Supreme Court ordered the legislature to develop a means of establishing what constitutes an adequate education (and funding it properly).