LITTLE ROCK — Adequately funding public schools is one of the most complex, time-consuming and important duties of the legislature.

Making it even more challenging is structuring the school funding formula to address the achievement gap between students from low-income families and those from more prosperous families. The gap refers to the lower scores made on standardized tests by low income students.

Here’s an example, based on scores made by Arkansas students on the ACT Aspire tests administered during the 2017-2018 school year. Only 30 percent of low income students scored at grade level, compared to 57.2 percent of non-low income students.

Scores in reading and math show similar achievement gaps.

The state provides bonus funding to school districts according to a formula that accounts for the number of low income students enrolled. The bonus funding category used to be called NSL, for National School Lunch, because eligibility for free and reduced price lunches indicates a student’s low income status. Now, the bonus funding is called ESA, for Enhanced Student Achievement funding.

About 60 percent of Arkansas students are eligible for free or reduced price school lunches. Schools with a higher percentage of low income students receive a higher rate of ESA bonus funding.

For example, if a district’s enrollment of low income students is less than 70 percent of its total enrollment, it receives $526 per student in ESA funding. There are 113 districts in this category.

If a district’s student body is from 70 to 90 percent low income, it receives bonus funding of $1,051 per low income student. There are 112 districts in this category.

There are 10 school districts in Arkansas in which more than 90 percent of students are low income. They receive $1,576 per low income student.

School districts are limited in how they spend ESA bonus funding. There are more than 20 approved uses, but the most common are for instructional facilitators and tutors, and for activities designed to help low income students academically. Also, districts can use the funding to hire teachers’ aides, counselors, nurses and social workers.

Last year, Arkansas schools received almost $234 million in ESA funding, which was about four percent of their total revenue.

Research indicates that students from low income families face obstacles to learning such as a lack of nutritious food, a lack of resources in the household, unsafe neighborhoods and a lack of adult role models. Generally, their parents’ academic background is poor, so the parents cannot teach and guide the students as well as parents from more prosperous families.

During a recent meeting of the Senate and House Education Committees, when legislators worked on the state’s ESA policy, they heard comments from advocacy groups that focus on improving education.

They included the Walton Family Foundation, the Walton Personal Philanthropy Group, the Winthrop Rockefeller Foundation, the Arkansas Rural Education Association and the Arkansas School Boards Association.

When the legislature convenes in regular session in January of 2021, legislators will have put in countless hours on the difficult challenge of closing the achievement gap between poor students and those growing up with more advantages.

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