Rep. Bruce Cozart, R-Hot Springs, said he won’t seek another term as chairman of the House Education Committee, but plans to still be active on policy in that realm.
“I’ve been in that position for eight years. I believe it’s time for letting somebody else to come in and play that role. I’ve done my share. I think I’m just going to step down. I’ll stay on the Education committee, but help in any way I can,” Cozart said on Sunday’s edition of Capitol View.
Cozart said the $550 million budgeted by Gov. Asa Hutchinson in his final balanced budget proposal won’t be enough to cover potential changes in the state’s education policies, which include teacher pay, school choice, and funding adequacy concerns.
“We’ve worked on adequacy this last year and there were two different reports, one from the Senate, one from the House. They both reflected a very different number. Those are things we’ll have to work out. $500 million would not be enough probably to do that, but we’ll see what we could do,” he said.
Lawmakers have suggested the number may need to be as high as $1.2 billion to address adequacy concerns. The state uses a funding matrix when it reviews education adequacy funding every two years, the outgrowth of the Lake View lawsuit decided nearly 20 years ago. That matrix covers areas of school funding from transportation to maintenance to teacher certification and pay in an effort to ensure “adequate and equitable” schools across the state.
Cozart believes it is time to restructure the formula that computes school funding, noting that times have changed, and funding challenges are different now. For instance, demographic data shows there will be fewer children entering school systems in the coming years due to declining birth rates.
“We do have a lot of problems in trying to figure out how to fund our schools properly with the amount of kids. Our matrix is a mess. It’s old, it’s back from way back so no major changes have been done to that. We have starting with a 500 class size school to fund, that doesn’t work properly so we’re going to have to go back and work that. With fewer kids coming in, not that the amounts go up, but we’re going to have to figure out how to make our schools be more productive and more efficient,” he said.
“[The matrix] is overfunding areas and underfunding areas. If you have X amount of teachers, we only fund X amount per student base and sometimes there’s more teachers out there. That’s why some of the schools won’t give the teacher raises because they have to put it into extra teacher places. We’ve got to fix that. We’ve got to get it where we can fund our schools appropriately and efficiently, but they’ve got to get efficient too,” Cozart added.
One of the big drivers that could impact school funding is an expected push to liberalize school choice. Cozart expects the issue of allowing funding to follow students to public, private or home school choices will be a major issue in the coming session, but he’s not sold on that concept in its most simplistic form.
“I think it’s going to have to be more like a reimbursement plan. Instead of just giving people freelance money and letting them just go spend it on what they want to, I think they need to be accountable for that money. If you give somebody $7,000 and just say, ‘Hey, go educate your kids,’ you’re not going to do it in private school, that’s going to be a lot more than that,” he said, while noting that home schooling does not cost as much as public or private school.
He says there will be worries that online home schooling could also erode smaller towns and communities, many of which are anchored around local schools that form their identity.
“That’s something we’ve been talking about for years, that as these little towns get smaller and smaller then a lot of online schooling is going to happen and it’s happening,” Cozart said. “That’s my problem with school choice. If you start pulling too many people out of a school and a school dies, your town’s going to die and we don’t want that to happen.”
Last month in a Talk Business & Politics interview, Senate President-elect Bart Hester, R-Cave Springs, said lawmakers will be very focused on improving reading skills for younger students, even if it means reducing other education options, such as history, science, sports and music. Cozart didn’t totally agree with Hester’s approach, but he acknowledged that there needs to be more emphasis on reading skills versus other activities.
“I think we have way too many things that we offer and there is, I really do. I think it’s gotten to be where we push so much on a kid in a short little time and they do. But reading needs to be a focus on the lower grades. Reading, writing, and arithmetic. That was always it when we were kids. We need to go back to the reading for sure. We’ve got to get them on reading. If you can read, you can do all the rest,” he said.
When asked for more details on solutions to improve reading levels, Cozart said teachers need more time with kids and there needs to be more targeted resources aimed at teaching struggling readers in early grades.
“I think I’m going to say what a teacher would say: they need more time. They’re too tied up on other things. Like I said, you’re pushing a teacher in too many different directions. They don’t have the time to spend with these kids. I think we need aides. We also need some extra help, reading experts we have, but we don’t have enough of them. We’ve just got a lot of work on getting the right amount of people in there and the right time that a teacher has to work with kids,” Cozart said.
Finally, Cozart said he thinks in January legislators will also focus on ending two desegregation orders, one in El Dorado and one in his home county of Garland County.
“I think there’s one thing that we’re going to push for and that is to end the deseg order, to get full school choice across all of Arkansas,” he said. “We need to release that. It’s been released everywhere else. We need to get those released so that those kids can go where they want to go and do what they want to do and around their own area. Full school choice is hard for people that have no way to travel or no way to get their kids there, so we need the ones in local areas that could go to a better school, if they want to, a different school that offers the things that their kid wants.”
You can watch Cozart’s full interview in the video below.