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School funding report a partisan deadlock; Governor now may lead process

But motions to pass a matrix with a 1.12 percent increase in per pupil foundation funding failed along party lines as both committees voted in succession. (MGN Online)

The Joint Committee on Educational Adequacy deadlocked along party lines voting for its required adequacy report Monday, potentially giving Gov. Asa Hutchinson the responsibility for crafting education policies and funding for the next two years.

Composed of members of the House and Senate Education Committees, the committee is required by law to submit its report to the governor every two years by Nov. 1. It has met for months trying to prepare its report.

But motions to pass a matrix with a 1.12 percent increase in per pupil foundation funding failed along party lines as both committees voted in succession. In the eight-member Senate committee, the vote was 4-2 with two senators not present and the two Democrats, Sen. Uvalde Lindsey, D-Fayetteville, and Sen. Eddie Cheatham, D-Crossett, voting no. In the 18-member House committee, the vote was 6-7.

It wasn’t clear what happens next – whether the governor makes the next move as he prepares his budget for the upcoming session, or whether the committees can come back and make recommendations. Rep. Bruce Cozart, R-Hot Springs, the chairman of the House Education Committee, said the ball may now be in Hutchinson’s court, but he believes legislators will meet again and make recommendations, though not before the required Nov. 1 date.

Hutchinson’s office released this statement: “I remain fully committed to a thorough review of educational adequacy needs. Continued improvements in education are essential for our state to grow economically and to assure the greatest opportunity for the next generation. If the legislature fails to reach a consensus vote on adequacy then the legislative findings and deliberations will be fully considered as I develop the budget for the next biennium.”

House Minority Leader Michael John Gray, D-Augusta, said he was looking to the governor to define education priorities. Cozart said Democrats didn’t want to negotiate funding. The motion made by Republicans in both committees after it was created by a working group would have increased spending 1.12%, while Democrats had floated a 2.5% increase.

Cozart said the Arkansas Association of Educational Administrators and the Arkansas School Boards Association had alerted their members last week after a worksheet showed only a 0.71% increase. Legislators received a flood of responses, though Cozart said the increase would not have equaled that amount. Gray said the dispute was about the amount of funding and also its priorities. The 2.5% figure had come from superintendents and educators.

“The question is, was everything that would provide children with an adequate education being addressed by these changes?” he said. “We are dealing with money, and sometimes it is reduced to one group wants a percentage change and one wants another, but I think it was more along the lines of priorities and what those priorities really are.”

He said smaller school districts aren’t funded adequately because the matrix is funded at a 500-student level. He said he hopes the governor’s proposals include after-school and pre-kindergarten funding.

“I think that there were some ways we could have addressed, directly addressed the achievement gap, rather than just some across the board changes,” he said. “I’m reluctant to say adequacy is simply just a cost of living.”

Prior to the vote, legislators engaged in a free-flowing discussion about the need to pay teachers more and to narrow the gap between teacher salaries at richer and poorer districts. Cozart said the Legislature has appropriated more money for teachers, but school districts have not spent it on teacher pay.

The state’s education commissioner, Johnny Key, a former chairman of the Senate Education Committee, said he wasn’t concerned about the Legislature’s lack of action.

“There’s been times in the past where reports have been modified after the fact or maybe delayed for whatever reason, so I’m not worried,” he said. “This is part of the legislative process, and I’ll keep working on it.”

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