Arkansas lawmakers ask schooling secretary to clarify proposed spending on colleges

State lawmakers on Thursday questioned Secretary of Education Johnny Key on proposed increases in funding for public schools, educating students with expensive special needs and alternative learning environments.

Gov. Asa Hutchinson on Tuesday proposed a $69.6 million increase in the general revenue budget for the public school fund to $2.32 billion for fiscal 2023, which begins July 1. The legislative period begins on February 14.

The House and Senate Education Committees recommended an increase of $86.7 million in fiscal 2023, their recommendation to provide adequate education for public school students. In addition to funding from general government revenue, the money for educational adequacy in the public schools comes from a 0.875% portion of the state’s 6.5% sales tax and from the 25 mills of property taxes collected by counties, according to the state Department of Education .

During the Arkansas Legislative Council and Joint Budget Committee hearing on the department’s proposed fiscal year 2023 budget, Senator Kim Hammer, R-Benton, pressed Key to justify Hutchinson’s recommendation that the spending authority to fund the state endowment per student by 70 .7 million dollars to raise 2.2 billion dollars.

“We’re going to add $70 million to it, and I understand Lake View’s involvement with the appropriateness and all,” Hammer said.

He was referring to the legislature’s biennial review of public school funding under the 2003 legislation, passed after the Arkansas Supreme Court’s Lake View School District vs. Huckabee decision, which found that the state’s education funding system was inadequate and unconstitutional.

“But we’re going to pump in $70 million more and what are we going to get in exchange for that, how far is it going to move the needle for the state with education outcomes?” asked Hammer.

Key said that the House and Senate Education Committees recommended increasing endowment funding per student as part of their education adequacy process.

“I believe what we are doing with districts through our … initiative with the reading you speak of investments being made now that it will be a while before we see the incremental impact of those actions [Bureau of Legislative Research] Staff showed up [recent] educational meeting,” he said.

“But so are they [initiatives] that we know work,” Key said.

[RELATED: See complete Democrat-Gazette coverage of the Arkansas Legislature at arkansasonline.com/legislature]

“To say that we don’t know that we have to provide $70 million, the teachers’ pay rises in many districts come from that, that’s where operating expenses are handled,” he said. “I probably can’t tell you that $70 million is going to move the needle X amount. But I can tell you that the things that are in place to support the teachers, leaders and students out there, we believe will move the needle.”

He said the state has been challenged by Covid-19 and virtual education, among others, in recent years, which has prevented the state from seeing the results of efforts like the Reading Initiative.

Rep. Johnny Rye, R-Truman, asked Key what Rye should tell a teacher making about $37,000 a year what to expect after the 2021 Legislature, and Hutchinson enacted legislation aimed at covering the middle Teacher salary to increase from $49,822 to $51,822 per year over a two-year period.

The law aims to narrow the gap between the highest and lowest salaries between school districts across the state and to help districts that aren’t at mid-level salaries, state officials said.

“We will be in the second year of an effort to increase the average teacher salary statewide,” Key said.

“A lot of these districts where their average teacher salary is below a certain level … like $51,000, $52,000 … are eligible for the second year of funding,” he said. “We will add districts. It’s $25 million [the first year] and $26 million in the second year. That’s going to be part of what we’re going to bring to you in the finance session.

“It will be a help, so you can tell them help is coming.”

SPECIAL EDUCATION

The governor recommended a $498,150 increase in spending authority to $13.9 million for costly events for special education students.

Hammer said some public school officials are concerned that they will have to shoulder much of the cost of providing day-to-day high-priced special education without adequate financial support from the state.

He questioned whether the proposed increase in the governor’s proposed budget was sufficient.

Key said the proposed increase reflects the recommendation of the House and Senate Education Committees in their adequacy recommendations.

State officials will provide information about “real needs” to House and Senate education committees for the first time after working to improve the process of funding special education teachers’ high-cost events, he said.

Those funds will be provided to reimburse school districts that support special needs students with more severe disabilities and much greater needs, Key said.

“If there are incidents where districts are not providing the required services, we will hear about it from the parents or attorneys,” Key said. “There are processes in our special education.”

But Sen. Joyce Elliott, D-Little Rock, said she’s concerned about the assumption that there are attorneys and parents who know how to do it.

“I just want us to find out who is checking to make sure things are going the way we think they are,” she said. “I don’t want us to have a household convenience because we don’t dig a little deeper to find out what’s going on. I just happen to know that there are people who just don’t know how to be advocates.”

Key said department officials understand that and he wants his special education team to speak to the House and Senate Education Committees about the changes and respond to questions.

“My team will not let me forget this problem,” he said. “We want this in front of you all because we believe we’re on a better path than we were before.”

ALTERNATIVE LEARNING

The governor recommends a $2.9 million increase in the Alternative Learning Environments Spending Authority to $35.7 million. These are programs aimed at at-risk students.

Key said the proposed increase is based on recommendations by the House and Senate Education Committees and the increase in the number of students in alternative learning environments.

Sen. Linda Chesterfield, D-Little Rock, said she was concerned that alternative learning environments had become a “dump” for certain students and questioned whether districts were being adequately monitored to ensure they were using the funds properly output.

Key said department officials share Chesterfield’s concerns.

“We have to look at the whole thing holistically [alternative learning environment] process and how we fund it, how we identify students, how we meet their needs.”

EXAMS

Chesterfield asked Key about audits of the Professional Learning Communities program and the Succeed Scholarship program.

The Arkansas Professional Learning Communities program trains educators to work collaboratively to improve instruction and student achievement.

The Succeed Scholarship Program offers private school vouchers to students in foster care, students with disabilities, and children of active or reserve members of the US military.

Key said all of the department’s programs are subject to review by the Arkansas Legislative Audit.

But Chesterfield said: “Although the state funds them, they are provided by outside sources and so I want to know that these facilities are specifically audited to see if the money we allocate to them is being spent as it should be His.”

According to Key, the state is providing approximately $14 million for the Professional Learning Communities program. Hutchinson has proposed a $2 million increase in spending authority for the program in fiscal 2023.

Hutchinson has proposed providing $3.3 million in state general revenue to the Succeeds Scholarship Program in fiscal 2023.

Key said the department has a process to periodically match the grants awarded under the Succeed grant program to those on our list of who should receive them, and we make sure we keep up with the reform Alliance and co engage individual schools to ensure that checks written to schools and parents or carers must be both appropriately spent and appropriately channeled.

Rep. Dwight Tosh, R-Jonesboro, listens to testimony while Rep. Tippi McCullough, D-Little Rock, reviews a budget statement during the Joint Budget Committee hearings at the state Capitol Thursday. Additional photos at www.arkansasonline.com/114budget/. (Arkansas Democrat Gazette/Thomas Metthe)

Gallery: Hearing of the Joint Committee on Budgets

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