Education committees to again consider hiring funding consultant

by Steve Brawner (BRAWNERSTEVE@MAC.COM) 234 views 

After two previous attempts to hire a consultant to recommend changes to Arkansas’ school funding formula failed, the issue again will be considered in August, the chairman of the House Education Committee said Tuesday (July 9). One legislator who voted against the last attempt said he probably will vote for this one.

Members of the House and Senate Education Committees have twice cast votes that prevented the hiring of a consultant. In May, they rejected a bid for $943,605, the only one that was submitted, partly because of the cost.

In June, they voted against seeking new proposals at a sparsely attended meeting. Some lawmakers have worried the consultant will recommend unaffordable increases in school funding that could be used as evidence against the state in a school funding lawsuit.

Rep. Bruce Cozart, R-Hot Springs, the House Education Committee chairman, said legislators again will be asked to consider that request for proposal when the committees meet again in August.

Consultants would be asked to recommend changes to the school funding formula. Those changes would be considered during the next education adequacy study cycle before the 2023 legislative session.

Every two years between legislative sessions, members of the House and Senate Education Committees produce an adequacy report that forms the basis for school funding. The report is the result of the Lake View court decisions that changed the state’s funding formula.

Cozart said the formula hasn’t changed since 2003.

Rep. Mark Lowery, R-Maumelle, who voted against seeking more proposals in June, said Tuesday that he probably will support seeking a request for proposal in August.

He and Cozart visited about the request recently while in Virginia at a Southern Regional Education Board meeting and Lowery believes his concerns are being addressed.

“I’m going to sit down with Rep. Cozart and take a closer look at this new RFP, but I think based on what he’s said to me, it’s probably something that I can support,” Lowery said.

Among the areas that could be considered are transportation funding and teacher salaries, Cozart said. The Legislature this year increased minimum teacher salaries by $60 million over the next four years. State funding is available during that time period, but the legislation contains no mechanism for covering the increases after 2022-23.

Lowery said he would like transportation to be funded in a separate category based on students transported and miles driven rather than student population. Some far-flung districts are losing money because of the miles they drive. Teacher salaries also could be a separate category.

The funding formula creates a matrix for expenses based on a 500-student district. However, school districts have significant flexibility to spend state funds as they see fit. That’s a source of concern for some lawmakers, including Lowery. Other lawmakers support districts having local control over the funds. Creating categories for transportation and teacher salaries would allow legislators to ensure certain priorities are funded, Lowery said.

Lowery would like areas already discussed by legislators, such as transportation, to be addressed early by the consultant so they could be incorporated into legislation earlier than 2023.

Cozart said the “driving force” behind the push for change is closing the achievement gap between more successful and less successful districts.

“That’s kind of what we’re looking at is what needs to be redirected, how can we change this up and how can we make it more efficient and get the money to the right places,” he said while traveling to an Arkansas Rural Ed Association conference in Eureka Springs. “And I’m not saying we need to cut money back, but how can we make it more efficient so it actually works the way it’s supposed to?”

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