Something has to be done to plug the immediate $58 million hole in funding for teacher health insurance and a long-term solution has to be found. But right now, there is no consensus on what to do. Some solutions have been proposed, one of which involves taking money from school poverty funding, more commonly known as "NSLA funding."
State NSLA funding is named after the federal National School Lunch Act program. It supplements the state's primary school funding formula, and it's given to school districts based on their on their percentage of low-income students. School districts receive extra funding for each low-income student (between $517 and $1,549 per student) depending on the percentage of their students that are considered poor.
The point is to give schools extra resources to help close the gap that exists between poorer students and their more affluent counterparts. It is a recognition, firmly established in education research, that low-income students often need greater supports if they are to succeed in school.
Using state NSLA dollars to plug the hole in funding for teacher health insurance is not a good solution. Some have claimed, mistakenly, that NSLA funding was never considered to be a long-term funding source for schools. These funds have been referenced in numerous adequacy reports and court documents since they were created in 2003 as part of the state's response to the 2002 Lakeview decision declaring the state's system of schools to be unconstitutional. But there is no clear evidence to suggest that it was meant to be a temporary source of funding for schools. The fact that NSLA funding has seen increases over the years seems to indicate the opposite.
Others float the idea of using NSLA funds to plug this gap because those dollars have not always been spent as effectively as they could have been to improve educational outcomes for struggling students. It would be easy to find agreement on that point, but it's still no reason to take those funds from our poor students. Arkansas Advocates for Children and Families, along with other organizations, has noted that the potential effectiveness of NSLA funding has at times been undermined. At times, the funding was not adequately targeted and some districts did not spend enough of their NSLA funds on the most promising or proven strategies. That said, a more reasonable response might be to make the program better, either by more careful targeting of how the funds are spent, improved evaluation and reporting, or, in the case of poor-performing schools that are not spending the funding well, greater state oversight on their use.
Let's look at a few reasons not to use NSLA funds to shore up teacher health insurance. First, using the funds for this purpose would be inconsistent with both the intent and letter of the NSLA funding law, which is to give poorer districts the additional resources to implement strategies that improve educational outcomes for low-income students. Taking more of those funds away will not further that cause.
Diverting NSLA funding could potentially undermine the state's compliance with the Lakeview court decision concerning funding adequacy, especially if NSLA funds were to disappear or if they were significantly reduced. Inevitably, someone would try to make the case that the needs of our low-income students were being undermined and land the state back in court.
We must recognize that while low-income students have made promising educational gains over the years, they still face significant gaps both in the quality of their learning opportunities and in their academic achievement relative to their peers. Taking NSLA money away would only undermine this effort and the gains we have made.
Using NSLA funds for teacher health insurance would send the wrong message to students and families in this state. We'd essentially be saying, "We can't find a more politically acceptable way to come up with the money, so we're going to take it away from you."
Yes, we must shore up health insurance for our teachers, it's critical to ensuring a well-trained workforce for our education system and our kids. But surely we can find a better way than this.