Rep. Cozart files bill to change school funding formula, will run this week

by Steve Brawner ([email protected]) 2,542 views 

A bill filed Friday (March 24) by the former longtime House Education Committee chairman would change Arkansas’ school funding formula.

House Bill 1689, the Comprehensive Investment in Student Achievement Act by Rep. Bruce Cozart, R-Hot Springs, would amend the Public School Funding Act of 2003.

Cozart said the new formula would better take into account the funding needs of each school district related to its size and to the backgrounds of the students it serves. The current formula, based on a typical school of 500 students, doesn’t fund smaller schools adequately, he said.

Schools would receive a level of base funding set through a continuation of the current adequacy process, where members of the House and Senate Education Committees discuss funding needs the year before the General Assembly meets.

The bill introduces concepts including “small districts” with 500 or fewer students; “very small districts” with 350 or fewer students; “sparse districts” with between 1.51 and two students per square mile in the district; and “very sparse districts” with fewer than 1.5 students per square mile.

Small districts and sparse districts would get an extra 10% in base funding, while very small and very sparse districts would get an additional 20%.

The bill would add a “weighted allocation” where additional funding would go to schools based on individual students who are economically disadvantaged or live in concentrated poverty.

Education committee members during each biennial adequacy review process also would determine direct allocation amounts generated for students such as rising fourth grade students who aren’t proficient in English language arts, students assigned to a career and technical program, and other circumstances.

The proposed funding formula also would include student outcome incentives providing extra money for schools meeting goals. Students from low socioeconomic backgrounds, English language learners, and those with disabilities could generate double the dollars.

The law would be effective July 1, 2025, and would be implemented in the 2025-26 school year.

Cozart said Saturday (March 25) he hopes to try to run the bill in the House Education Committee on Tuesday or Thursday of this coming week and wants to pass it this session. As of Saturday, it was awaiting a fiscal impact statement. The bill is being sponsored in the Senate by Sen. Kim Hammer, R-Benton.

Cozart said his proposed funding formula is based on Tennessee’s. He was introduced to the concept by one of that state’s Education Committee chairs at a Southern Regional Education Board meeting.

He said he has not been working with Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders’ office on the bill, and that it was not designed alongside the LEARNS Act, her signature education bill passed earlier this legislative session.

“We just tried to make sure we didn’t do anything that would change the LEARNS Act, but we didn’t actually take it into account because they were sill working on the LEARNS Act when we were working on this,” he said.

Cozart said he was confident the bill would be on firm legal ground. School funding concerns led to the long-running Lake View School District No. 25 v. Huckabee court case of 2002. In the years since, keeping the state from returning to court has been an overriding concern of policymakers.

The bill would retain the current law’s emphasis on the state’s responsibility for providing free public schools based on the Arkansas Constitution and the Lake View case. It says the proposed formula is “intended to be a funding plan and not a spending plan.”

Beginning with the 2026-27 school year, a public school or a public school district that receives from the state a “D” or “F” letter grade, or an open-enrollment public charter school that has a less-than-satisfactory evaluation, could be required to appear before the State Board of Education to report on its performance and how its spending decisions affected student achievement.

A Progress Review Board would review schools where 70% of third-grade students had not achieved the top two levels of student assessment. Schools would have three years to meet the goals set forth by the board, which then could determine if further action is necessary.

It would be composed of the Secretary of Education, the Division of Elementary and Secondary Education (if a different person), the State Board of Education chair, and legislators.