Legislators continue to struggle toward New Year's deadline

Monday, January 5, 2004

LITTLE ROCK (AP)- A House panel on Monday rejected a plan that would have added about $500 million a year to funding for public schools in Arkansas.

The proposal turned down by the House Education Committee was offered by Rep. Barbara King, D-Helena, as an alternative measure to one sponsored by House Speaker Herschel Cleveland, D-Paris, that would add about $300 million each year to the state's school funding.

King said she wants to bring her measure up before the Education Committee again. The full house planned to consider later on Monday the bill proposed by Cleveland, an opponent of Gov. Mike Huckabee's school consolidation plan.

Larger school districts have complained that Cleveland's bill rewards inefficiency and does not help bigger schools.

With just three days before a New Year's deadline to change Arkansas' unconstitutional school funding system, there was little prospect Monday for a breakthrough on court-ordered education reforms.

Against that backdrop, sponsors of legislation to infuse the existing funding formula with new aid for the poorest schools took a necessary first step Monday morning with budget committee approval of a mechanism by which the money would be transfered from a consolidation incentive fund set up by Huckabee to the state Department of Education.

The Joint Budget Committee later planned to consider the proposal by Sens. Shane Broadway, D-Bryant, and David Bisbee, R-Rogers. It would channel about $16 million more in state money to poor school districts based on the number of students received free and reduced lunches.

Another $5 million would go to districts to help set up alternative learning environments for problem students.

Bisbee and Broadway also have introduced an permanent alternative for funding public education. A hearing was scheduled Monday before the Senate Education Committee.

As legislators left the Capitol after a brief day at work on Friday, key House members including Cleveland said they doubted they would conclude their work by New Year's Eve.

The consequences of failing to meet the court deadline aren't certain, but it could leave the state open to a lawsuit enjoining it from distributing state money to schools through an unconstitutional system.

``We need all eyes on this funding issue,'' Cleveland said.

His proposed funding formula would require $261 million in new tax revenue the first year and about $731 million annually after three years.

When Cleveland presented the plan to the House Education Committee on Tuesday, the superintendent of 5,923-student Bryant schools testified against the bill, saying it did not sufficiently fund large school districts and rewarded small districts for inefficiencies.

Richard Abernathy said the formula would give his district about $5.7 million to staff its 1,755-student high school. If the school divided into eight smaller schools, the district would have more than $7 million to spend on teachers, administrators and other staff, he said.

King's proposal would allocate $5,600 in base per-student funding for each of Arkansas' 450,000 public school children and add money for schools with large numbers of poor students, non-English speaking students or other special-needs students.

King said the plan would cost about $482 million.

``I feel like this would accomplish what the court told us to do,'' she told members of the House Education Committee Friday, before agreeing to put off a vote on the measure until Monday so that she could gather more financial information from the state Department of Education.

But Rep. Betty Pickett, D-Conway, questioned why the formula did not follow the recommendations provided by California-based education consultants this summer. The consultants said the state must spend up to $847 million a year in new education funding to meet the court's mandate of providing children equal access to an adequate education.

``I'm going to have a hard time voting for a bill that does not specify what adequacy is composed of,'' she said.

With funding issues expected to dominate legislative debate this week, key issues still undecided include whether to reorganize schools and how to fund education improvements.

Huckabee advocates consolidating school districts with fewer than 500 students to save money, streamline bureaucracy and make the best use of limited number of qualified high school math, science and foreign language teachers in high schools.

His plan passed the Senate Dec. 19 but has yet to be considered by the House Education Committee.

A plan favored by rural legislators that would largely avoid school consolidation and would place most existing education standards into law passed the House Dec. 22 and has yet to be considered by the Senate Education Committee.

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