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Selling kids short

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A young professional family told me this week they are thinking of leaving Arkansas because the state isn't committed to education and opportunities for their kids. Another parent of a child with special needs told me she's frustrated her school can't afford the help her child needs to get her reading up to grade level. Another parent's child isn't allowed to bring textbooks home because the school doesn't have enough of them, and can't afford more.

Arkansas improved our school system dramatically in the past decade, but we still have a long way to go. Unfortunately, legislators just sent a dangerous message that they don't care much for public education anymore.

We owe our progress to a bipartisan consensus that emerged to fix our unconstitutionally inadequate and unequal school system in the famous Lake View court case. The Arkansas legislature agreed to conduct an annual review to determine the cost of providing an adequate education to our children, and to fund schools at those levels.

Arkansas funded the research-proven reforms recommended by the adequacy committee for over a decade. It boosted teacher quality and pay, revitalized curriculums, renovated schools, made AP classes the norm and more. The results poured in. We moved up the national rankings, from 49th to 45th, up to 41st. We had the fastest improving test scores in the country.

This year the Bureau of Legislative Research found that schools need a 2.5 percent increase in 2018 and 2019 to keep pace with inflation, and a separate Special Education Task Force found our severely underfunded programs for kids with disabilities need a minimum of $20 million.

But the Legislature's Education Committees have other ideas. The chair of the House Education Committee, Rep. Bruce Cozart (R-Hot Springs) first proposed an increase of only 0.71 percent in 2018 and zero percent in 2019, and completely eliminating the $20 million for special education. The vote was split on party lines, for the first time in recent history, fracturing more than a decade of bipartisan support for improving schools. After Cozart's cuts failed, he stewed to reporters that he wished he had made the adequacy recommendations illegally in secret.

Thankfully, Democratic leaders forced a compromise. The Senate Education Committee eventually approved an increase of just over 1 percent, a $4 million increase for special education and a small boost to minimum teacher salaries. That's better than zero, but a far cry from what our students need. The partisanship of it is alarming.

Cozart was nonchalant about the cuts, saying funding didn't have much to do with educational adequacy and claiming districts waste money. Districts should be held accountable, but Cozart never offered a specific example of waste he would eliminate to offset the tens of millions in cuts. Cozart's view also contradicts the Lake View ruling that found a lack of funding was a leading cause of our educational deficiencies.

Tax cuts, primarily for the wealthy, are driving these attempts to cut education spending. More than $100 million in tax favors passed last session, and more than $100 million more are proposed for the coming session. Those tax breaks must be paid for by spending cuts elsewhere, including the needs of children and schools.

Funding is not the only area where our schools are under attack. Cozart is the same lawmaker who sponsored the legislation last session allowing school districts to be given to private charter corporations.

Arkansas is falling behind again after a decade of growth. Our lawmakers are taking their eyes off the consensus-based, proven reforms we know will help every student — quality teachers, expanding pre-K and afterschool/summer programs, helping children in poverty and adequate funding. Instead, these lawmakers are following billionaire school privatizers who want to bet our future on failed trickle-down economics and the polarizing siren song of charter schools, resegregation, vouchers and other gimmicks.

The future of Arkansas depends on getting public education right. Nearly any economist will tell you a quality education system far outweighs tax cuts in sustaining economic growth and opportunity. Can't Arkansas do better than 49th in economic, health and social well-being?

We need to demand that lawmakers return to the bipartisan track record of investing in the proven, consensus-based education reforms we know will help our students. It's about a 2.5 percent increase to keep up with inflation this time, and another $20 million to help children with special needs. We need to stop gutting standards and privatizing schools.

Quality public education shouldn't be a partisan issue. It shouldn't even be a controversial one.

Bill Kopsky is executive director of the Arkansas Public Policy Panel.

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