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Lawmakers Question Education Commissioner About Subtracted Funds In '19 Budget Proposal

The Arkansas Department of Education building in Little Rock
"...If there is extra money, we need to put that on teacher recruitment, or Pre-K, or teacher salary or teacher benefits, I'd say those are probably the top four," said Rep. Charlotte Douglas (R-Alma)

Public Education funds in Arkansas are meeting bare minimums set under law and not getting any extra money in the governor’s proposed budget for next year.

Education Commissioner Johnny Key fielded lawmakers’ questions and concerns about the proposed budget at a Joint Budget Committee hearing on education funding Wednesday in advance of February’s fiscal session.

 He told the committee that $50 million dollars that had been projected in 2016 for education needs in the 2019 budget have been moved out. According to Key, that’s because student growth is down and property tax revenues are up.

“Because of a change in the need for general revenue, what we are proposing, what the governor’s budget proposes, is that there would not be a need for general revenue transfer,” said Key.
While sidestepping possible educational needs beyond the adequacy requirement, a minimal educational standard mandated by the state constitution, Gov. Asa Hutchinson’s budget plan does set aside the majority of the state’s $64 million surplus in a special fund to use for tax cuts.

State Sen. Will Bond (D-Little Rock) questioned Key about whether the education department had pushed for extra education funding in areas of need.
“Was there a discussion as to whether to use this $50 million to somehow solve the teacher recruitment problem and train the next generation of teachers?” he asked.
Key confirmed that Arkansas teacher training program enrollments in the state have dropped by about half over the last five years.
He also responded that the department did not push for extra because last year, lawmakers recommended the state meet its constitutional adequacy standards and no more. That included a 1 percent cost of living increase recommendation, rather than the 2.5 percent increase supported by Democrats.
Some lawmakers seemed to wish the process had gone differently. Rep. Charlotte Douglas (R-Alma) said she sees a need for extra spending on education if there’s new money to go around.
“I think when we go through the adequacy process, then at the end of us deciding how much money needs to go to adequacy,  we should have a wish list and say, ‘If there is extra money, we need to put that on teacher recruitment, or pre-K, or teacher salary or teacher benefits.’ I’d say those are probably the top four,” she said.

Rep. John Payton (R-Wilburn) seconded the desire to see more education funding at least at lower levels.
“Well, I think the budget is tighter than it needs to be on K-12, and that we have far too much money and taxpayer assistance going to higher education.”
Arkansas Education Association Executive Director Tracey Ann Nelson echoed the lawmakers’ concerns.
“It could have been an investment in social workers to help with behavioral health in schools. Some of it could have been used to help with the teacher pipeline that is especially a challenge right now in our state.”

The proposed budget does include over a $1.3 million in increased spending on the state’s Public School Fund.

This year’s fiscal session begins February 12.

This story is produced by Arkansas Public Media. What's that? APM is a nonprofit journalism project for all of Arkansas and a collaboration among public media in the state. We're funded in part through a grant from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, with the support of partner stations KUAR, KUAF, KASU and KTXK. And, we hope, from you! You can learn more and support Arkansas Public Media's reporting at Arkansas Public Media is Natural State news with context.

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