Thursday, September 13, 2012

Week In Review

State Capitol Week in Review
        LITTLE ROCK  –  The Senate Committee on Education heard a plan that would significantly change the formula used by the state to provide money to local school districts for transportation.
        If the legislature makes any changes in transportation funding, it would happen during the 2013 regular session and it would generate strong differences of opinion.  About two-thirds of the state's 239 school districts would likely benefit from a change in the formula because currently they don't receive as much state aid as they need for transportation costs.  About a third of the state's school districts receive more than they need for transportation, under the current formula.
        Last year Arkansas schools received $178 million for school buses and transportation, in four major categories.  The largest single category is foundation funding, under which $138 million flowed from the state to individual school districts.     
        The state provides another $5 million to schools in rural, isolated areas, where the cost of providing transportation is proportionally much higher than average.  Another $10 million from the federal government flows to local schools for transportation, and the state pays $25 million to the three districts in Pulaski County under a federal court order in a long-running desegregation case.
        Under the current formula the state provides about $310 per student.  Some districts spend as little as $127 per student per year, while others spend as much as $1,037 per student per year.
        In general the current formula is based on average daily student enrollment.  The proposal put before the Education Committee adds two other components - the number of students who actually ride on a school bus and the number of miles traveled by a district's school buses.
        If the state continued to provide $25 million in transportation funding to Pulaski County schools under the desegregation settlement, but adopted the new formula for the $138 million in foundation funding, it would mean that 150 school districts would get an increase in state transportation funding while 89 districts would get less.
        The state Constitution requires the state, in other words the legislature, to provide an equal and adequate education to all Arkansas children.  After years of litigation the state Supreme Court finally ruled in the Lake View school funding case that the state funding formula is constitutionally adequate.  Since that ruling, whenever legislators discuss any changes to school funding they keep in mind whether it would prompt a new lawsuit or an attempt to revive the Lake View suit.
        Experienced senators on the Education Committee were confident that the changes discussed in the transportation formula would be constitutional because they are supported by solid evidence.  However, one senator urged caution, calling an effort to change school funding "a march through a dark swamp."
        Besides the legal questions, any change in the transportation funding formula would face opposition from the school districts that would see a decrease in funding.  The executive branch, judging by questions and comments from the director of the state Education Department,  has concerns about changes in the school funding formula.

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