I haven’t posted a legislative update in a while, so here are a few important happenings from this week:
Yesterday, HB1897, the Parental Choice Scholarship Program, failed on a voice vote in the House Education Committee. This bill, if passed, would have been by far the broadest school voucher program in the country, even broader than the Indiana program I wrote about last week. The bill would allow every student in Arkansas, regardless of income, to participate, and would provide that student with a scholarship in the amount of 92% of the per pupil foundation aid that public schools receive. The funds would come out of the funding provided to the student’s resident school district, but the student would still be counted in the resident district’s ADM and that district would continue to receive the remaining 8% for that student. The bills allows all kinds of schools to participate in the program and receive scholarship students, including charter schools, magnet schools, private schools, alternative schools, and even public schools outside of the student’s resident school district, essentially allowing open school choice for all students, should those public schools choose to participate. The parent is responsible for any costs of attendance over what the scholarship amount covers. All in all, this bill leaves a lot to be desired. There’s no academic accountability for private schools, and the bill discourages poor students from participating, as their parents are unlikely to be able to afford any additional costs of attendance over what the scholarship covers. The House Education Committee sent the bill to interim study, which is where many bad (and sometimes good) bills go to die.
The House Education Committee did pass HB1938 yesterday, which places a moratorium on the closure of schools by the State Board of Education for enrollment purposes until April 30, 2015 and orders a study of transportation costs in rural schools. This doesn’t affect a school district’s decision to close a school on its own, unless the school is an isolated school. If the school is an isolated school, and the school board vote is not unanimous (which is usually the case, as the member from that school’s zone usually opposes the closing), then the State Board of Education has to approve the closure by statute. This bill disallows those closings as well, which could have a negative financial impact on districts that have these isolated schools within their borders. This is a slippery slope to say the least.
CORRECTION: I must have misread the General Assembly website. This bill failed in the House Education Committee. It may be brought back up again though.
And for something not related to education, thank you to Sen. Joyce Elliott for again trying to pass SJR19, which would ratify the Equal Rights Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. The Equal Rights Amendment, which has never been ratified by enough states to become part of the U.S. Constitution, states that no rights shall be denied or abridged by the federal or state government because of a person’s sex. It amazes me that in 2013 we’re even having this discussion, but what really amazes me is that any woman could ever vote against this, but Sen. Jane English did yesterday in the Senate State Agencies Committee meeting.