Dollars for schools set — this year


Next month, Arkansans will elect state legislators who will converge on Little Rock in January. Gov. Mike Beebe then will outline his agenda in a State of the State address. They’ll all spend three months discussing issues great and small.

And yet, for all intents and purposes, almost half the money they’ll be talking about was budgeted this past Monday before the Legislature even convenes. It’s not a done deal, but it’s close.

That’s when the House and Senate Education Committees, meeting together as the joint adequacy committee, approved an increase of between 1.8 percent to 2.5 percent in the amount the state will spend for each student. In other words, somewhere between $57.7 and $78.4 million.

These next few paragraphs are going to explain in a nutshell how the state spends money on schools.

The joint adequacy committee — I don’t think it’s ever been official enough to be capitalized — came into being in 2003. That was the year after the Arkansas Supreme Court decided in what is known as the Lake View case that the state must fund public schools adequately and equitably. That decision came after years of lawsuits that no one wants to revisit, and so, year after year, in and out of recession, Arkansas schools have gotten more money.

Public schools, in fact, are by far the biggest single recipient of the general revenue that comes from state taxpayers, and over which legislators have the most control. This year, the state will spend a little more than $2 billion on K-12 education out of a total general revenue budget of $4.7 billion. It will spend $3.7 billion on public education, counting the money it receives from other sources, such as the federal government. The total state budget is $24 billion, counting those other sources.

Most of that $2 billion constitutes the Public School Fund, which doles out money to school districts according to how many students they have. Each student this school year nets a district $6,267 from that fund.

There was a time when schools were getting all kinds of money thrown at them, but the past few years have followed the same routine: The joint adequacy committee has done a study and then recommended a range of increases close to the rate of inflation. Beebe has settled on an amount in that range and written it in his budget. And then legislators, scared to death of another Lake View case, have rubber-stamped it.

There’s got to be a reason why I’m giving you this history lesson in school finance, right?

Basically, this situation can’t continue forever. The state faces up to a $400 million shortfall in Medicaid next year because of rising costs.

At the same time, Congress eventually is going to figure out that the easiest way to reduce the federal budget deficit is simply to shift more of the burden to the states. Meanwhile, we’re about to have more Republican legislators in Little Rock — likely even a Republican majority — who will oppose raising taxes for any reason and will be inclined to look for savings where they can find them. And Arkansas has this law called the Revenue Stabilization Act that requires and achieves a balanced budget.

So expenses are increasing, legislators will be reluctant to raise taxes, and the state, thankfully, cannot deficit spend. The money has to come from somewhere. That means at some point in the near future, lawmakers and some unlucky governor will have to ask themselves if public schools ought to continue receiving a cost-of-living adjustment every year — even if it means risking a lawsuit.

Whatever they decide, it could get kind of messy.

At least it works better than Washington, D.C.

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Steve Brawner is an independent journalist in Arkansas. His blog — Independent Arkansas — is linked at arkansasnews.com. His e-mail address is brawnersteve@mac.com