Restructuring Of Arkansas Higher Education Funding Heads To Senate

Jan 30, 2017

Rep. Mark Lowery (R-Maumelle) and Arkansas Department of Higher Education Director Maria Markham at a committee hearing. File photo 2017.
Credit Michael Hibblen / KUAR News

A bill to restructure how Arkansas’s higher education funding is determined is advancing to the state Senate. The switch from enrollment-based funding to productivity-based funding comes at the direction of Governor Asa Hutchinson’s office. State Representative Mark Lowery, a Republican from Maumelle, carried the bill on the House floor Monday.

“This funding model is going to be based on a three year rolling average,” said Lowery. “If a university has a dip in the number of students who are progressing toward diplomas it does not adversely affect them and their ability to receive state funding.”

But state Representative John Walker, a Democrat from Little Rock, argued the new funding model would make the strong, stronger while the weak would get weaker. He called it a catch-22.

“If they don’t have increasing or stable budgets they can not get teachers. They don’t attract students. And ultimately they die,” said Walker. “They die just like the southern part of the state, the eastern part of the state, and much of the central part of the state is dying. There are consequences to all of these things.”

Representative Lowery said the funding formula will be sensitive to schools that take on struggling students.

“Not all of the weighting will be tied to a diploma or certificate. There’s a recognition there’s some campuses that very uniquely target their abilities to working with underrepresented minorities. So there’s actually going to be a rewarding, a weighting system if students in those groups are able to progress, if they’re able to persist from semester to semester and hopefully to completion,” said Lowery.

Walker, a long-time civil rights attorney who has a marker on the state’s Civil Rights Trail, appealed to the majority white, Republican chamber to vote against it.

“I speak against this knowing that whenever I speak against something you say, ‘there’s John Walker again.’ But basically, here you are. These are your white children,” he said. “On this point, your children and my children are in the same boat. This is mean legislation and too much of it is coming through here.”

State Rep. Stephen Meeks, whose brother also severs in the House, backed the bill. The Republican from Greenbier had the nearby University of Central Arkansas in mind. He speculated that current enrollment-based funding led to too much focus on student recruitment through high-class amenities. He hoped it would cut down on UCA funded “rock concerts” too.

The bill passed with 80 votes in favor in the 100 member body. It also calls for an overall boost of $10 million to the state’s higher education system.