The House and Senate Education Committees voted Tuesday (Aug. 20) to make a request for proposals from education consultants to produce the state’s first adequacy study in 16 years.
The vote came as legislators began the 18-month process for producing the biennial adequacy report due Nov. 1, 2020.
Legislators began making the report in 2003 after the Supreme Court’s Lake View school funding decision. This year’s report will govern school spending for the 2022 and 2023 school years.
Legislators approved making the request for proposals on a voice vote after several spoke for and against it. An RFP earlier this year resulted in only one submission for almost $1 million, and legislators rejected it.
Rep. Bruce Cozart, R-Hot Springs, House Education Committee chairman, told members a new study is needed to help future Legislatures spend money on public schools.
Cozart later said in an interview that the request will be submitted in September, and he hopes to hear back from consultants within 30 days.
Some legislators spoke against hiring a consultant, or at least expressed concerns. One concern expressed by Sen. Jim Hendren, R-Gravette, was that a report recommending more school spending could be used as evidence in a court case by plaintiffs seeking those additional dollars.
Hendren asked if the consultant would be asked to recommend dollar amounts or simply better processes. Secretary of Education Johnny Key said the request would focus on methodology. Hendren eventually said he would vote for the RFP.
Sen. Linda Chesterfield, D-Little Rock, said courts have never said legislators must follow a consultant’s recommendations. Meanwhile, the state should reconsider what constitutes an adequate education after 16 years because much has changed, including a growing emphasis on mental health and the increased consequences of opioid addiction.
She argued that legislators don’t have to accept any of the consultants’ proposals. Simply making the request costs the state nothing.
Rep. Mark Lowery, R-Maumelle, said legislators don’t need an outside consultant to consider long-discussed changes such as moving transportation into categorical funding, where legislators could set specific amounts based on miles traveled, rather than keeping transportation in foundation funding, where it’s based on student head count. Legislators could make changes to the matrix faster without waiting on a consultant, he said.
He also worried that consultants may want to justify their high fees by suggesting major changes, when what’s really needed are tweaks.
Rep. Stephen Meeks, R-Greenbrier, said the money that would be paid to a consultant would be beneficial for a state that ranks low in many education categories. But Rep. Jim Dotson, R-Bentonville, said consultants sometimes make great presentations but don’t provide great reports.
At the meeting’s start, Nell Smith, the Bureau of Legislative Research’s Policy Analysis and Research Section administrator, told legislators that 41% of Arkansas general revenues are spent on public schools, and half of school district revenues come from the state.
She told them “Adequacy is what you say it is, as long as it’s grounded in evidence.” Funding decisions must be based on needs, not available money. Anything legislators decide is needed for an adequate education must be funded. Under state statute, K-12 education must be funded before all other funding priorities.
The final report that legislators will produce will form the basis for the governor’s education budget.
“The full General Assembly then typically adopts the recommendation by passing those bills in the regular session,” she said. “And that generally happens without a whole lot of discussion or debate. You may remember from the 2019 session, bills worth $3 billion flew right through committees and the chambers, and that’s because they had the adequacy stamp of approval.”
Smith told legislators they can recommend changes to school funding and education policies, as well as changes to the study itself. A 2003 law established the study’s broad requirements, with changes coming several times in later years. The first study was conducted in 2003 by professors Larry Picus and Allan Odden.
The last biennium’s adequacy process included 18 meetings and produced dozens of reports before the final one, she said.