Columns » John Brummett

Equal aid per child -- just not fair

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State money for schools ought to be distributed equally per child. That sounds so basic. You wonder how anyone could argue.

You should visit with two of the best Democratic state senators, Stephen Bryles of Blytheville and Jim Luker of Wynne. That's eastern Arkansas, where school districts are poor and losing students.

Let's say you have a small, poor school district in a withering town in the Delta that, from one year to the next, loses 50 students. Let's apply to that level of attrition the current per-pupil state outlay, $5,400.

On a strict per-pupil distribution, which is how most but not all of our state school aid is handled, the district would sustain a loss in state funds of $270,000.

So, a district that was poor to begin with, with lower teacher salaries and lower student test scores than the prosperous areas of the state, is supposed to extract nearly $300,000 from its annual budget. Yet there's not much flexibility in the costs of salaries, transportation and utilities. Those will be pretty much the same year to year, even higher via inflation, with or without 50 youngsters.

You end up cutting funding to the students who are left in the poor districts, and who were underprivileged already. You take their money from last year and send it to new enrollees at thriving places like Bentonville, Rogers, Conway, Mountain Home, Siloam Springs, Cabot and Bryant.

You do that at the very time you're supposed to be obliging a Supreme Court order to equalize educational opportunities for kids from the Delta to the Ozarks.

That consolidation might fix this is beside the point once consolidation fails.

We have a mitigating factor. We send extra money per-child for students who are sufficiently poor to qualify for the federal lunch program.

But there are poor kids in rich areas, too. Springdale, Rogers, Conway, Mountain Home -- these places have substantial percentages of their student bodies who qualify for this aid, though nothing like the 90 percent common in eastern Arkansas districts.

The state attempts to address that. The poverty subsidy is graduated according to the percentage of the student body qualifying for the lunches.

Still, the combined effect of per-pupil funding with poverty subsidies tends to be this: A rich district in the northwestern corner of the state or in suburban Little Rock ends up getting not only more state money each year from natural growth, but also nice supplemental chunks for substantial raw numbers of students qualifying for student lunches. The poor and declining districts get less year to year.

Thus the gap between rich and poor widens even as the court orders us to equalize and even as we claim to be complying.

Bryles intends to offer amendments to address this inequity in the forthcoming special session that the legislative leadership wants to keep simpler than that.

First he probably will propose that declining districts be granted the option to base their enrollment figures on a three-year average, not the actual current enrollment. That cushions the blow from year to year.

Then he wants to tinker with the school-lunch subsidy, probably to send yet more money to districts with poverty-level student populations above the statewide average.

To avoid a fight he couldn't possibly win, he probably will propose to hold all districts harmless on poverty funding, so that the rich, growing, politically potent districts wouldn't actually lose.
The Legislature ought to be able to slow the special session train long enough to let this kind of fairness and logic hop on.

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