Thursday, August 26, 2010

Week In Review

State Capitol Week in Review

LITTLE ROCK – A legislative subcommittee recommended spending an additional 2.5 percent on public schools next fiscal year to ensure that education is adequately funded as required by the state Constitution.

That would mean $69 million in increased funding for schools from kindergarten through grade 12 in the 2011-2012 school year.

The recommendation jump-started discussions of the state budget for next fiscal year. It raised questions at the Capitol whether the state can afford to increase school funding so much in the current economy, when the pace of revenue collections has slowed considerably.

Defenders of the increase say it does not matter whether economic conditions cause a slowdown in state revenue. The legislature has a constitutional obligation to adequately fund public schools, and the state Constitution does not require state government to appropriate funds for other state agencies and services.

The legislature has worked for years to determine the elements that make up an adequate and equal education for all students. It's called a matrix. The subcommittee's recommendation does not add any spending programs to the matrix; it increases funding of the matrix to account for inflation.

The Joint Adequacy Evaluation Oversight Subcommittee made the school funding recommendation. It is a subcommittee of the Senate and House Education Committees, which have the duty to determine how much state funding is necessary to provide an adequate education to the 465,000 students in Arkansas.

The Education Committee's work is being carefully monitored by the governor, state agency directors, budget officials, higher education campuses and non-profit organizations that have contracts with state government. That is because the adequacy recommendation has financial ramifications for everyone connected to state government.

The state has a constitutional obligation to adequately fund schools and the Arkansas Supreme Court has ordered that each year the legislature determine how much money is needed to do so. Once a determination is made the legislature must provide funding in the complete amount, or risk falling out of compliance with the Constitution.

If revenue collections fall under budgeted levels, cuts would be made in other areas of state government, such as prisons, colleges and human services. Budget cuts will not be made in public education because that would decrease funding below constitutionally required levels of adequacy.

The Adequacy Subcommittee also recommended a change in how the state funds transportation costs incurred by local school districts. According to the co-chairman, about a third of the 244 districts in Arkansas receive enough funding or more than they need to pay for school bus costs. However, two-thirds of the districts in Arkansas don't receive enough to cover their transportation costs.

Under the proposed change, no district would lose funding but they wouldn't be eligible for additional funding. Currently, each district gets $297 per pupil for transportation. New money would be available for those districts whose transportation costs are more than $297 per student. They would apply for increases based on the number of miles their school buses carry students.

Legislative budget hearings begin October 5.

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