20 Years Later: Let’s Look Anew at School Funding
March 16, 2019
Jane English, Bruce Cozart and Cory Biggs
More than two decades ago, a small school district in the Arkansas Delta filed litigation alleging that the state of Arkansas had failed to provide an “adequate” education system. The resulting landmark Arkansas Supreme Court decision, Lake View School District No. 25 v. Huckabee, helped establish baseline funding for public schools and create a funding formula meant to support all students throughout the state.
Specifically, the Lake View decision established a minimum amount of per pupil funding–currently $6,781–for public schools throughout Arkansas.
It is important to note that, in 2019, fewer than 5 percent of school districts generate sufficient local tax funding to reach this baseline. The state provides additional monies to fill the gap. Schools with large numbers of students in poverty or who otherwise need special supports receive additional categorical funding from the state. This additional funding was originally designed to assist in providing educational programs and services to close the achievement gap between high-need students and their peers.
With so many adjustments to the system for categorical funding having been made over the years as to make its original design nearly unrecognizable, this approach of combined local and state baseline funding for all schools, with additional categorical funding from the state for high-need schools, is widely recognized as imperfect.
For years, however, this status quo has gone largely unchallenged in spite of mounting evidence that the achievement gap persists.
Growing frustration with our inability to significantly narrow the achievement gap, despite millions of dollars spent and the best efforts of local educators, has recently led to a variety of bills in the Arkansas General Assembly seeking to compel improved student outcomes. There has been lively–and much needed–debate on these bills, and while this shift in the conversation among policymakers may be a step in the right direction, a broader and deeper conversation about school funding is needed.