The Future of Arkansas’s Education System Depends on Funding “Arkansas Works”

The state general revenue budget is often fluid. To arrive at a forecast, you look at long-term trends, national trends, local economic conditions … those calculations will tell you within some degree of certainty how much the state budget will grow.

From that projection, state leaders look at who needs what. In other words, how will we spend that growth? Do we need more books in our libraries? More kind-hearted souls to shepherd the children in foster care? Do we need academic interventions to keep all kids on the path to learning? Additional money to ensure that we have the best science, math, and reading teachers in the state? After answering these and thousands of other similar questions, the fluidity of the budget solidifies into something like that mixture (a non-Newtonian fluid) you can make with cornstarch and water (science at work!). (There is still a chance that things will change.)

And, that’s where we find ourselves now: facing a huge change that could have long-lasting, negative impacts for all Arkansans.

If the General Assembly does not fund the appropriation for the newly minted “Arkansas Works” in the fiscal session that is starting tomorrow, Arkansas’s general revenue budget will be facing a minimum of $143M in cuts to General Revenue. Yesterday Speaker Gillam released his view of what those cuts could look like. It’s not pretty.

In education, the cuts will be harmful for teachers and, more importantly, harmful to our kiddos.

The cuts proposed include the following:

  1. $5M from our state’s quality pre-K program
  2. $9M from our nationally board certified teachers
  3. $1.69M from a program to help 11th- and 12th -graders succeed after high school
  4. $2M from coordinated school health
  5. $3M from our math, science, and literacy specialists in K-12 schools
  6. $4.8M from higher education

Let’s break this down a bit.

We will be cutting funding to programs that make our children better off at every level of their education, starting with our littlest learners. Our Arkansas Better Chance program is one of the most highly-rated programs in the country, but as with all things, when the cost of crayons goes up, so too does the need for increased financial support. Not only does this $5M cut take away $5M in funding that hasn’t been increased in eight years, but it also appears that the “one-time money” set-aside for pre-K in this biennium won’t be repeated, so in essence, this is an annual cut of $6.5M. What this means is that we will be forced to serve fewer children or we will reduce quality; a two-edged sword, as we know that the quality of the program is what makes pre-K gains long-lasting.

The slashes here include cuts to our most highly qualified teachers, those who have gone through the rigorous National Board Certification process. These teachers are recognized statewide for their amazing passion in the classroom and contributions to their students’ educations. Cutting this important part of their salaries when our teachers are already woefully underpaid can only lead us toward fewer quality teachers staying in the profession. Further negatively impacting teacher quality are cuts to math, science, and literacy specialists who provide professional development statewide to our math, science, and literacy teachers. At a time when we should be increasing the computer-savvy of our kids, not to mention their ability to read on grade level by third grade, this is a cut we cannot afford.

We can’t forget the cuts to coordinated school health, which rather than being funding for coordination is actually funding for the 27 health clinics located on school campuses throughout the state. All of these clinics rely on this state funding. These amazing places provide well-child visits at school, saving parents multiple trips to and from school and the doctor as well as time off work. They keep our kids healthy and are right there to help when a child is sick.

There is a rather cryptic line in the Speaker’s list of education cuts. It simply says “At-Risk.” This euphemism really stands for a program that targets 11th- and 12th- graders who are at risk of remediation after high school. The nearly $2M used to help these students during the summer months can help save money down the road. When students take non-credit-bearing remediation courses in college, they drain students’ resources and often lead to them dropping out of college, which in turn has ripple effects into the overall economy.

Those high-tech jobs that we hope to grow in Arkansas depend on a skilled and educated workforce. Continuing a trend of under-funding our higher education institutions is not the way to get there.

Our only option is clear. If we truly care about the future of the state and the education of all of our kids, we have to fund “Arkansas Works.”

-By Kathryn Hazelett, Education Policy Director @AACF

Note: This is the first in a series of AACF blog posts related to the Arkansas Budget crisis.