BY STATE SENATOR LARRY TEAGUE –
LITTLE ROCK – State education funding in Arkansas is based on enrollment, with local school districts receiving extra money for each pupil in attendance from a low-income family.
The legislature established the bonus funding for poor students during the 2003-2004 special session that was devoted almost entirely to improving Arkansas public schools. That special session was called in response to a Supreme Court ruling that the state was failing in its constitutional duty to provide an adequate and equitable education to all students regardless of which area of the state they lived in.
In Fiscal Year 2013 Arkansas school districts received a total of $193 million in state aid based on the number of low-income students they taught. This category of state aid is called National School Lunch (NSL) funding, although it is separate from the federal school lunch act that pays for the meals provided to poor students for free or at a reduced price.
The state uses the same eligibility criteria as the national lunch program, and school districts receive bonus funding for each student who qualifies for a free or reduced price lunch. If a student’s family income is less than 130 percent of the federal poverty level, the student gets a free lunch. If their family income is between 130 percent and 185 percent of the poverty level, they get school lunches for a reduced price.
The higher the percentage of low-income students enrolled in a school district, the greater the amount of bonus funding the state sends. In Fiscal Year 2013 the state provided an additional $517 per pupil to districts where the number of NSL students enrolled is less than 70 percent. About 60 percent of the 238 school districts in Arkansas fall into this category.
Districts whose enrollment is 70 percent to 89 percent NSL students received an additional $1,033 per pupil last year. Those schools represent 37 percent of the state total.
There are eight districts, or three percent of the state total, where 90 percent or more of the students live in low-income families. Those districts received $1,549 per pupil in extra funding last year.
Of the 460,000 students enrolled in Arkansas public schools 50 percent are eligible for free lunches and another 10 percent are eligible for reduced price lunches. About 40 percent are not eligible.
The Senate and House Education Committees are the focus of an ongoing debate in the legislature about how schools should spend their NSL funding. Legislative staff polled local school districts and learned that 31 percent spend it specifically to help low-income students. Another 20 percent of school districts use NSL funding to help students who struggle to maintain their academic grade level. Almost half of Arkansas, 49 percent, spend the NSL funding on programs that benefit all students regardless of family income.
In districts where 90 percent of the students live below the poverty level, there is little difference in dedicating the NSL funds specifically for low-income students and spending it for the entire student body.
NSL funding is restricted to 17 purposes approved by the legislature or eight uses approved by the state Board of Education.