John Payton, Arkansas State Senator

As soon as the 2023 legislative session adjourned, the Senate and House Committees on Education began work on school funding in preparation for the 2025 session. Every two years the committees issue an adequacy report that sets a level of state funding of public schools that will comply with the state Constitution and state Supreme Court orders in school funding cases. The adequacy report issued by the Education Committees are the starting point for the entire legislature’s financial decisions on school funding. The committees determine funding levels for numerous categories of education expenditures, such as teacher and principal salaries, ratios of teachers to students, health insurance and other benefits, transportation and instructional materials. Those categories are set out in a matrix. The bottom line of the matrix is the total foundation funding per student. This year it is $7,413per student. In addition to foundation funding there are a few categories of extra funding, also calculated on a per student basis. For example, school districts receive an additional $366 for each student who does not speak English as their native language. Districts get bonus funding if they have high percentages of students from low-income families. There is a category in the funding matrix for special education teachers. There is another funding category for schools that have an above-average number of special education students. The Senate and House Education Committees will begin in earnest preparing an adequacy report in January of 2024. It will take much of 2024 to finalize, and will be the basis for the funding matrix approved by legislators during the2025 regular session. In October the committees will examine different funding models, such as the one used in Tennessee and models developed by the Education Commission of the States. The chair of the Senate Education Committee said that she expected no big decisions to be made, but it would be helpful for Arkansas legislators to know about the funding models in other states. During the 2023 session, the House of Representatives passed HB 1689 to change the school funding act. However, it failed in the Senate by a vote of 12-to-14.Supporters of the bill said that the current funding model may be outdated, and that small schools are not receiving enough state aid. The major elements of the current model are about 20 years old and were approved by the legislature in response to state Supreme Court rulings in the Lake View school funding case. Lake View was a small, rural district in eastern Arkansas that sued the state over school funding. It went through the courts for ten years, and Lake View won. It was a landmark case that made clear it is a constitutional mandate for the state to provide an adequate and equitable education for every child in Arkansas. The legislature has the constitutional duty to appropriate state funds, so ultimately it is the duty of legislators to ensure that the state complies with the Constitution and with state Supreme Court orders in the Lake View case.