After the failure yesterday of a joint meeting of House and Senate Education Committees to produce a proposed education budget, the Senate Committee reconvened today to make another stab at a compromise.
UPDATE: In summary, they’ve produced a budget that enhances a budget originally put forward in the House, with some small teacher pay raises and some added money for special education. Indications are that the plan will meet with the governor’s approval and Democrats are taking some credit for forcing the improvements however modest. The added spending still falls well short of the “adequacy” level recommended by legislative researchers.
Democratic resistance was the key to events yesterday. Republicans were pushing for a much smaller increase than the amount recommended by the Bureau of Legislative Research to meet the adequacy standard required by the Arkansas Supreme Court in the landmark Lakeview school funding case.
Republicans are looking for every way to preserve money for a tax cut. Democrats succeeded in adding $20 million to the budget for special education, in response to a finding of a shortfall of that amount by the Bureau of Legislative Research. They also want to provide a little more for teacher pay than the Republican leaders want to provide.
Republicans were pushing for a 1.1 percent increase to basic support in the $3 billion budget and to strip the added special ed funding. Democrats — and many local school officials — were pushing for a budget increase of 2.5 percent, more in line with inflationary increases, they say.
The Senate committee favored the budget Monday 4-2 on a party line vote for a committee that has eight members split 5-3 Republican. The House committee voted 7-7. It currently has a full membership of 18 — 9 Democrats, eight Republicans and a nominal independent who generally votes Republican, his former party.
After Monday’s vote, it appeared the legislature might not produce a recommendation by today’s deadline. The governor will submit his own proposal the day after the election. Nothing can be approved until next year in any case, but the Education Committee recommendations are generally vital, if not controlling, in the process.
The meeting opened today with Sen. Uvalde Lindsey, a Democrat who’d been leading a fight for the special ed money, saying something would be presented that followed some “intense negotiations.”
Sen. Joyce Elliott, who sat in on the meeting, reports the Committee approved this compromise proposal:
* A 1.2% teacher pay increase each year of the biennium. (Note this comes against continued increases in health insurance premiums for teachers.)
* Catastrophic special education funding of $2 million in each of the two years of the budget cycle (against the original $10 million per year). The $2 million is cumulative, so that means $4 million more in the second year than current support.
Altogether, the committee approved a 1 percent increase each of the next two years in general funding and a 4.3 percent increase in categorical funding for a total of $45 million additional dollars in the first year.
I’m not sure where things head from here. But the recommendation will be among the factors the governor has to consider come time for his own numbers. Given the overall control of the legislature by Republicans, you have to like the chances of this moving forward. Indeed, Democrats believe this plan will have the seal of approval of the governor and his plan will closely if not exactly resemble it.
Today’s plan is a move up from Rep. Bruce Cozart’s personal proposal as chair of the House Education Committee of a .7 percent increase in spending the first year and none the second year. But it is a dramatic shortfall against the non-partisan research of the Bureau of Legislative Research. Will it cause enough pain in school districts to force brave souls to revive Lakeview, in the manner of Kansas school districts now suing over Gov. Sam Brownback’s budget cuts there to pay for tax cuts? Time will tell.
Democrats take some credit for at least a small improvement. House Minority Leader Michael John Gray said the Democrats’ stand Monday did produce a raise for teachers each of the next two years.