07 Jul Panel ready to propose special-ed fixes, legislator says

July 7, 2016

By: Brian Fanney

Source: arkansasonline.com

A legislative task force is set to recommend changes to improve special education in Arkansas, but the estimated cost of some of the fixes, competing priorities and talk of a tax cut from Gov. Asa Hutchinson will factor into what is ultimately adopted, a state senator said.

Beginning in August 2015, the Legislative Task Force on the Best Practices for Special Education has met with stakeholders and identified areas where the state needs to improve. That includes low-cost fixes like reducing paperwork for teachers, improving communication and informing parents of their rights.

But providing enough state funding to increase the number of special education teachers from 2.9 teachers for every 500 students to 3.3 teachers per 500 students and to hire an equivalent number of aides would cost about $107 million a year, said Sen. Uvalde Lindsey, D-Fayetteville, who is chairman of the task force. He spoke during a Wednesday meeting.

It’s going to be a hard sell, but that’s the committee’s recommendation based on a 2014 report from Picus Odden and Associates, the firm the state hired to analyze school funding, he said.

The task force will submit its final report next month to the House and Senate education committees.

In the wake of the multiple legal challenges involving the Lake View School District, the state’s Supreme Court found that Arkansas did not provide an equitable or adequate education to students. The education committees were charged with ensuring “equal educational opportunity for an adequate education,” under Arkansas Annotated Code 10-3-2102.

Special education students are specifically included under that state law.

However, “the [education] committee is going to be pulled in 15 or 20 or 30 directions,” Lindsey said in an interview. “There will be people who say we need more [national school lunch] money for people in poverty, or more teacher salary money. The superintendents are going to want a 2 percent [cost of living adjustment,] which is $100 million. The governor is going to want a tax cut.

“So, what’s the priority?”

Lindsey said there is at least one area in which he does not believe some special education students are receiving an adequate education.

Arkansas has a “catastrophic fund” to reimburse schools for educating students with severe disabilities. Since the 2010-11 school year, the fund has provided about $11 million a year, but could have paid out more in eligible expenditures — $16 million in the 2010-11 year, increasing to $30 million in the 2014-15 school year.

“It has been flat funded for 10 years,” Lindsey said. “That means we are funding at a third of the level that was determined to be adequate 10 years ago. That, to me, is a gross example — the perfect example of the state not fulfilling its responsibility to those kids.”

Lindsey said he will request an additional $19 million to fund the eligible expenditures.

The House Education Committee chairman, Rep. Bruce Cozart, R-Hot Springs, said he is unfamiliar with all of the discussion in the task force meetings.

However, he said, the state is obligated to assess adequacy without factoring in cost.

“If there’s something we need, we can’t say, ‘No, we can’t spend the money.’ We’ve got to find the money,” Cozart said.

The committee will begin to develop its report and recommendations in August. Lindsey said he planned to present his task force’s report on Aug. 23.

Cozart said he expects his committee to focus on teacher retention as it discusses adequacy in the coming months.

“You can’t just throw money at schools and kids, but if there are tools to help them meet their goals, we want to do that,” he said. “If we have overburdened some areas, then we want to fix that. Altogether, we’ve got a lot of work to do.”

During a news conference on Tuesday, Hutchinson discussed his desire for a future income tax cut. The state reported Tuesday that it ended fiscal year 2016 with a $177.4 million general revenue surplus. Asked if decisions regarding educational adequacy could affect his plans for a tax cut, the governor said it’s one component of many.

“The result of the adequacy committee is extraordinarily important to the strength of education in our state, but also it has budgetary impacts. So, there’s all types of ingredients. It’s our ability to manage the prison population and whether we have to invest more in prisons. That’s a budgetary impact. It makes a difference whether we are slowing the growth of Medicaid based on the reforms we’ve put in place,” he said. “All of those have an impact on what we can do in terms of our income tax cuts.”

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