Opinion Politics

Cash & Candor: Is adequate enough?

On Tuesday, Gov. Asa Hutchinson unveiled his proposal for a $5.62 billion budget for fiscal 2019, which begins July 1. Despite a conservative spin – touting a $100 million reduction from his previous proposal – the budget would actually increase state spending by more than $172 million.

And while overall spending will go up, the governor did give some funding the axe. The Department of Human Services will receive less than anticipated for medical services. And that makes sense, because more than 117,000 Arkansans have been removed from the Medicaid rolls. But what left me – and some lawmakers – scratching my head is the decision to eliminate a general revenue transfer to the Education Adequacy Fund.

According to the governor, there’s plenty of money in the fund for the state’s schools to remain “adequate.” Apparently, our schools are in such good shape they don’t even need the $50 million transfer, which would account for .008 percent of the budget.

Wrong.

It’s no secret to the rest of us that Arkansas’ public education system leaves much to be desired. And I say that as a proud product of it. In fact, the state’s overall ranking dropped again last year, from 41st in the nation to 43rd, according to Education Week’s annual Quality Counts report.

And it’s not like the state is struggling, generally speaking. Of course, Mississippi’s ranking is in the basement – c’mon, it’s Mississippi. Arkansas, on the other hand, has record lows in unemployment, nation-leading GDP growth and some of the country’s biggest industry leaders. But when it comes to educating our youth, we’re at the bottom of the barrel. And we have been for some time.

You would think there would be a concerted effort on the part of state officials and lawmakers to invest in the education of our youth, the leaders of tomorrow. But that couldn’t be further from the truth. Arkansas lawmakers are shamefully reluctant to provide funding for public education, and always have been. That’s evident by the fact it took a Supreme Court ruling to get the state to pony up in the first place.

In the mid-1990s, the Arkansas Supreme Court charged the legislature with funding education “adequately.” The Educational Adequacy Fund is the result of that decision. And ever since, there’s been an incessant effort to usurp the rules and funnel valuable resources away from our public schools.

The 2017 legislative session is rife with examples of this behavior. Right out of the gate, a state senator proposed a constitutional amendment to remove judicial review of the public school system, leaving all oversight to the General Assembly. Had that ill-advised amendment been approved, state lawmakers would be the only authority as to whether or not public education was adequately taken care of, removing an entire branch of the government from the equation.

I wouldn’t give this legislature unchecked authority over a newspaper route, much less an entire public school system.

And when they weren’t trying to remove critical supervision, state lawmakers were invariably looking for new ways to funnel resources away from public education and into the hands of private and charter schools. And they weren’t even subtle about it.

Now, there’s nothing wrong with private or charter schools. They provide parents and guardians with valuable options when deciding what’s best for their child. But while I recognize their importance, they lack any real oversight and should not be subsidized to the detriment of public education.

But that’s exactly what the legislature tried to do. During last year’s regular session, lawmakers tried once again to expand the private school voucher program.

Vouchers, like charter schools, are admirable in theory. They provide students who may otherwise be unable to afford a quality private school education the opportunity to broaden their horizons without having to pay tuition.

But there are many critics of voucher programs, too, especially the one proposed last spring. Critics argued that the program would take critical funding away from public schools. And they were partly right. But the bill that nearly passed last year went a step further, offering to launder tax dollars for private schools through “education savings accounts,” with little to no oversight. Unlike a straight voucher program, where funding comes directly from the government, lawmakers sought to create a middle man, shrouded with the veil of privacy extended to private nonprofits.

Thankfully, the effort fell short. But lawmakers found other ways to peck away at public education.

Last year, the General Assembly did pass a bill requiring public school districts to sell or lease their “underutilized” buildings to charter schools for at least two years. The law takes away control of a property from a school district, while also giving charter schools the authority to determine lease terms.

To get the measure passed, lawmakers bent the truth by suggesting the bill would only give charter schools the opportunity to purchase or lease an unused public school building. But that’s not the case. Charter schools already had the right of first refusal. And if a public school district refuses to hand their facility over to a charter, they run the risk of being placed on fiscal distress. A distressed classification would enable the state to take over the district.

I can only imagine what the legislature will cook up this time around.

The Supreme Court ruling that instructed lawmakers to pony up for public schools also instructed the state to ensure that the quality of public education for every Arkansas student was equitable and adequate. Instead, lawmakers have tried to put their foot on the scale and ignore the need for parity among our school districts.

Gov. Hutchinson may be right; there may be enough money in the fund to maintain educational adequacy. But that doesn’t mean every district in our state is as well-equipped as it should be. For many school districts in the state, especially small and rural ones, recruiting and retaining quality teachers is a massive challenge. And far too many teachers across the state go years without raises and plenty could make substantially more money working just about anywhere else. They may not agree with the assessment that everything is hunky-dory in the world of public education.

The future of our state relies on the success of the next generation. It’s time we stop doing just enough to get by, because adequate isn’t enough.

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