Arkansas's Constitution promises an equitable and adequate education for the children in our state, and since the post-Lakeview ruling by the Supreme Court, our legislature has used a school funding formula that stems straight from those two goals.
But it can be more confusing than it sounds.
The important thing to get your head around when listening to school funding conversations is that the legislature outlines a set of expenditures for schools each year that represent the amount it takes to educate each student to an "adequate level." The state then distributes funds to school districts according to that formula.
That process is separate and apart from how school districts budget and spend that money.
For example, Arkansas's House and Senate Education Committees began considering the state's "foundation formula" for schools for the 2013-14 school year. You may hear legislators and educators refer to the "matrix" -- that's the chart that includes costs like average teachers' pay, technology needs, day-to-day maintenance, substitute teachers -- basically everything that goes into providing an education for a child.
The catch here is that those costs, for efficiencies' sake, are calculated for a student in an enrollment of 500. That's fine for schools and school districts of 500 or more, but, in 2010-2011, Arkansas had 36 schools with enrollments less than 500. That means the money in those districts has to stretch farther. It seems unfair, but there's a back story.
In the same 2004 special legislative session when the funding formula was developed (and taxes were raised to support school funding) Governor Huckabee and many legislators agreed that some efficiency of spending had to be guaranteed for the state's taxpayers. At that time, Arkansas had well over 300 school districts, many of them very small.
Because it's easier to spend money more efficiently in larger districts, Governor Huckabee proposed an enrollment base of 1,500 for school districts. Smaller ones would be consolidated to make larger ones. The outcry was deafening, with a good bit of it coming from superintendents who were facing the fact that they'd be out of a job.
The proposed 1,500 enrollment base dropped to 500, then to 350. But, remember, the funding formula was based on 500. To keep their small districts open, superintendents at that time promised legislators they could make do.
So that's one piece of confusion that has to be explained each year by legislators like Sen. Joyce Elliott and Sen. Jimmy Jeffress, who were around when all that happened.
The other piece of confusion occurs when the actual expenditures of schools are looked at and don't measure up to the matrix expectations. For example, the matrix earmarks $209 per student for technology, and the average expense by districts in that category is only $129 per student. The thing to remember here is that the foundation money is given to schools to ensure they have enough funds to provide an adequate education to their students. School district administrators get to decide how they must spend the money to provide an adequate education.
That makes sense. Just think about the $209 per student for technology. A school district that has just used a lot of federal money to invest in technology -- Smart Boards and computers and such -- for its schools can use the bulk of those state technology dollars for something more needed, perhaps additional staff or a reading program.
One last point for this long blog posting that was made eloquently by Sen. Elliott yesterday. The matrix funding is not based on what it takes to build an ideal school and education for Arkansas students, but an adequate one. So while our state can and should be very proud of the strides we've made over the last decade, we need to remember that there's a world of difference between ideal and adequate.