Arkansas has spent more money on schools with high percentages of poor and minority students than on other schools, and while test scores have improved at both, the achievement gap is not closing, a representative of the Walton Family Foundation told legislators Tuesday (Jan. 12).
To address that problem, part of the funding targeted to those populations should be based on how well schools are meeting academic goals.
Kathy Smith, senior program officer for the Foundation’s Arkansas Education Reform Initiative, told the House and Senate Education Committees that, by 2020-21, 20%, or $40 million, of the $200 million the state spends on poverty-based funding, should be based on performance outcomes. Half would be targeted to meet math goals and half to meet literacy goals for students paying free and reduced lunch prices.
Smith represented one of eight groups testifying before the committees, the others being Arkansas Advocates for Children and Families, the Arkansas Association of Educational Administrators, the Arkansas Education Association, the Arkansas Public School Resource Center, the Arkansas School Boards Association, the Arkansas State Teachers Association, and the Winthrop Rockefeller Foundation.
The groups offered recommendations for changes to state school funding. Next month, the committees will begin working on the adequacy report, which forms the basis for school funding decisions made by the Legislature. According to the Department of Finance and Administration, the state is budgeted to spend $2.184 billion in general revenues for K-12 education this year, which is 42.11% of the $5.186 billion general revenue budget. Schools are supported by other sources, including local property taxes.
Using data from the University of Arkansas Office for Education Policy, Smith said Arkansas has been investing in its schools. In 2000-01, the state was spending $5,615 per student, which was $1,890 less than the national average and $688 less than the regional average. By 2011-12, Arkansas had closed the gap to $1,154 less than the national average while spending $972 more than the regional average. Adjusted for the cost of living in each state, Arkansas had closed the gap nationally from $1,341 per pupil to $214.
Meanwhile, Arkansas has been spending extra in schools with high numbers of minority students and students receiving free and reduced lunch prices. In 2000-01, the state was spending $687 more per pupil in schools with the highest percentage of free-and-reduced-price- lunch students and $773 more in schools with the highest percentages of minority students. In 2013-14, the differences had grown to $2,464 more per student in schools with high percentages of students in poverty and $1,781 more for schools with high percentages of minority students.
The state spent an average of $9,429 per student in 2013-14.
But paying more money on the front end is not resulting in success, Smith said. Scores on the state’s Benchmark exams have improved significantly for both free-and-reduced-price lunch students and for students with regular lunch prices. But while the achievement gap fell or remained steady from 2005-06 to 2011-12 in math and literacy, it increased in 2012-13 and 2013-14.
In 2013-14, 86% of non-free-and-reduced-price students scored proficient or advanced on the math portion of Benchmark exams, compared to 65% of students on free-and-reduced-price rates. In literacy, the rates were 90% and 70%.
Performance-based funding makes outcomes as important as inputs and would give schools in those areas an incentive to invest in innovative programs to reduce the gap, Smith said. She said paying everything on the front end hasn’t been successful.
That argument wasn’t persuasive to Rep. Reginald Murdock, D-Marianna, who represents an area with a high number of high-minority, high-poverty districts. He said that while those types of schools are receiving more money, it’s not enough to address the greater challenges they and their students face. Rep. John Walker, D-Little Rock, agreed, saying, “It’s less costly to teach a child in Rogers or in Fayetteville than it is in Helena or Marianna.”
Among the other groups, the Winthrop Rockefeller Foundation called for investing more in early childhood education, as did Arkansas Advocates for Children and Families. Dr. Richard Abernathy, executive director of the Arkansas Association of Educational Administrators, said the current funding formula is a “one-size-fits-all” model that no longer works. Some smaller school districts can have a harder time fitting into the matrix, he said.
Dr. Michele Ballentine-Linch, executive director of the Arkansas State Teachers Association, told legislators that a survey of her membership found more than 90% believed the state should contribute more to health insurance benefits. A majority of those who said pay raises was a concern had not had raises in four to 10 years.
Meanwhile, 34% said their districts were allocating excessive funds, often to various administrative positions with unclear roles or to athletics. One of the 300 survey participants said her school had no wi-fi or computers for student use.