LITTLE ROCK — The Senate Education Committee is putting long hours into making sure that Arkansas’ new school choice law strikes the right balance.
Co-sponsors of the school choice bill want parents to have every opportunity to send their children to the best possible schools in their area, regardless of district boundaries. School choice is good for families, and it also creates competitive incentives for school administrators to improve their schools.
On the other hand, legislators don’t want to create a system that returns Arkansas to the days of segregated schools. With this in mind, the Senate Education Committee is hearing from superintendents, attorneys for parents in school choice lawsuits and the state attorney general’s office. The committee is getting input from parties in the long-running Pulaski County desegregation case.
Five of the eight members of the Education Committee are co-sponsors of Senate Bill 65, the school choice bill. Although the co-sponsors could have already advanced SB 65, they are taking the time in committee to make sure they have heard all sides and addressed as many concerns as possible. The bill has already been amended five times.
The previous Arkansas choice law used race as a basis for denying some students the opportunity to transfer outside of their resident school districts, and it was stricken as unconstitutional by a federal judge last year. The judge’s ruling has been stayed, meaning it has not taken full effect, until it has been appealed.
Some educators want to wait until all appeals of that ruling have been decided, which would likely mean the legislature would not approve a bill this session. However, supporters of SB 65 prefer to be prepared for next school year, rather than do nothing.
Under the bill, the deadline for applying to a non-resident district would be July 1. The school would have 30 days to respond. Students may accept only one transfer per year, and if they changed their minds they would have to wait until the following year to return to their previous school.
Criteria for accepting or rejecting transfer applications could be the receiving schools’ capacity. They are under no obligation to add teachers, staff or classrooms to make rooms for students who wish to transfer into the district. Priority will be given to siblings.
Districts may not set standards for rejecting applications that include students’ academic achievements or athletic abilities. Nor can the standards include proficiency in speaking English or a student’s disability. Previous disciplinary records may not be used either, although a student’s prior expulsion can be used.
Receiving school districts may not discriminate on the basis of race, gender, religion, ethnicity or national origin.
In related news, the House Education Committee advanced HB 1770, which extends from two to five years the period in which a school district can be in academic or fiscal distress before the state Education Department takes it over.
Also, the House Education Committee advanced HB 1528, which creates an office within the state Education Department specifically to hear applications for new charter schools. The state Board of Education, which is appointed by the governor and which rules on all charter applications now, would only hear appeals if HB 1528 is enacted
(Jason Rapert is the State Senator in Faulkner County serving District 35. He can be reached by email at Jason.Rapert@senate.ar.gov or by phone at 336-0918.)