By ANTOINETTE GRAJEDA | Arkansas Advocate
The Arkansas House and Senate education committees on Tuesday split on supporting public school funding recommendations that include additional money for increased teacher salaries.
In a voice vote, the House Education Committee approved the proposal while Senators opposed it.
The proposed funding formula, called the matrix, approved by House committee members Tuesday would increase funding for teacher pay by $4,000, raising the state’s minimum teacher salary from $36,000 to $40,000. Classified employees would receive $2 more an hour.
If Tuesday’s proposal is approved by the full Legislature in January, teachers could also see “salary enhancements” for the current school year.
The Senate and House education committees met jointly Monday and Tuesday to discuss school funding and review the adequacy of education spending, a requirement imposed by the landmark court case, Lake View School District No. 25 v. Huckabee.
Lawmakers have conducted these adequacy reviews every two years since 2003 to ensure public school funding is equitable. The committees’ report to the speaker of the House, Senate president pro tempore and governor is due Nov. 1.
The report establishes a funding formula that sets per student amounts for categories like alternative learning environments and classes for English language learners. Arkansas spends about 41% of its general revenue budget on K-12 public education.
Per-student funding increased from $7,182 to $7,349 for the 2022-23 school year.
The proposal distributed to members this week recommended increasing base per-pupil funding to $8,129 in the 2023-24 school year and $8,296 in 2024-25.
Arkansas ranks 41st in the nation in education funding and 38th in spending, according to the Education Data Initiative.
Rep. Brian Evans (R-Cabot) presented the proposal, a result of “strong commitments” made by lawmakers earlier this year to complete the adequacy review as part of developing a plan to increase educators’ salaries.
Sen. Linda Chesterfield (D-Little Rock) noted $40,000 is still below neighboring states like Mississippi, which increased its minimum teacher salary to $41,500 this year.
“No entity in this public school arena is unimportant, and so we’ve got to find a way to be competitive as we talk about what we really need to be doing to provide not only adequacy, but the exceptional, and we cannot do it if we’re paying less than market value,” Chesterfield said.
The state’s $1.6 billion surplus prompted calls this summer to increase teacher salaries. But Gov. Asa Hutchinson did not include teacher raises on the agenda for August’s special session because it did not have enough support among Republican legislators.
Lawmakers said then they’d rather address the issue when the regular session begins in January.
During this week’s meetings, education committee members also discussed concerns about special education and transportation funding. The proposed matrix includes increasing funding for the special education catastrophic fund from $13.5 million in fiscal 2022 to nearly $14 million in 2023, $17 million in 2024 and $17.5 million in 2025.
Transportation funding would increase from $6 million in fiscal 2022 to $7.2 million in 2023, $7.7 million in 2024 and $8 million in 2025.
“I believe that this is just a good compilation from a lot of members who have a lot of vested interests in their districts,” Evans said. “They see what the needs are in their districts back home and how we as a joint committee can help move education forward.”
Rep. DeAnn Vaught (R-Horatio) made a motion to approve the proposal Tuesday and divide the chambers for separate House and Senate votes.
The House panel unanimously approved the proposal. The Senate committee opposed the proposal on a voice vote, with only one member voting in favor.
While some members wanted more time to discuss recommendations proposed this week, House Chair Bruce Cozart (R-Hot Springs) said he preferred to vote Tuesday because of approaching deadlines.
“We should have time to discuss and have dialogue about this, and to me, I’d love to see collaboration where we figure out something together and move forward,” Senate Chair Missy Irvin (R-Mountain View) said Monday.
Conversations about these recommendations can continue beyond the report deadline because “nothing is written in stone until legislation is passed,” Rep. Stephen Meeks (R-Greenbrier) said.
“In the past there have been times where the House made a recommendation and the Senate made a completely different recommendation coming into that Nov. 1 deadline, and then we get into session and those have to be ironed out,” Meeks said. “So just because we make a recommendation Nov. 1, when we get into session we can get into something completely different.”
All recommendations discussed during this week’s meetings will be included in the report, which will be filed and publicly available, Cozart said.
Special education teachers needed
Additional recommendations included creating a task force to study extraneous factors, like hunger and housing, that affect student success, requiring alternative learning educators to submit annual progress reports to the Division of Elementary and Secondary Education and re-evaluating special education funding.
Nearly 66,300 students with disabilities attended Arkansas public schools in 2021, according to a draft of the Educational Adequacy Report. This number has increased by about 11% since 2017, while the number of special education teachers funded in the matrix has remained flat.
Eighty-three percent of superintendents reported that their districts were in moderate or extreme need of more funding for special education teachers, according to a survey cited in the draft report.
While the matrix has guided education funding for nearly 20 years, several committee members expressed frustration with the process and suggested changes.
“Everything is a hostage to a matrix,” preventing the state from imagining excellence instead of adequacy, Sen. Joyce Elliott (D-Little Rock) said.
“I hope at some point in our state we decide what do we want to be and work for that. Because if we don’t, we will keep trying to make adequate transportation, make adequate whatever, you name it, by taking it out of a model that we have outgrown in the first place,” Elliott said.
Rep. Rick Beck (R-Center Ridge) agreed the matrix could be adjusted based on factors like school size to help create more equitable funding between smaller and larger school districts, but he said the matrix also provides stability to districts.
“I would caution my colleagues if you get rid of the matrix, it is sort of an anchor which we work around right now and that does add some stability to the funding for the different school districts,” Beck said.
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