Arkansas Lawmakers Face Crowded Education Agenda

by Andrew DeMillo, The Associated Press  on Sunday, Dec. 9, 2012 2:26 pm  

State Sen. Johnny Key, who will chair the Senate Education Committee, says he's open to the idea of a separate entity handling charter school applications but said it would depend how such a panel would be set up.

LITTLE ROCK — Court rulings on student transfers and school funding will collide with the desire of charter school and voucher advocates to take advantage of a new Republican majority when Arkansas legislators tackle education issues next year.

An already crowded education agenda became even more packed last month, when the Arkansas Supreme Court ruled that the state can't take excess property tax revenue from wealthy school districts and redistribute it to poorer ones. Addressing that ruling becomes the latest on a to-do list that already includes fixes to the state's school choice law, expanding charter schools and possibly implementing a voucher-like system for private schools.

By a 4-3 ruling, justices last month decided the state cannot collect excess money from two districts where higher property tax collections pushed the districts above total school funding levels set by state law. State officials, who say the decision undermines years of reforms undertaken after the Lake View school funding case, are expected to ask justices to reconsider their ruling.

Justices said state law didn't give the state authority to redistribute the funds, but suggested lawmakers could change that. Those who agree with the decision, including the top Republican in the House, are opposed to giving the state that power. It's an option that Gov. Mike Beebe and other critics of the decision aren't eager to embrace, either.

"We're caught between is there a legislative solution here, or should this be a judicial solution?" said Sen. Joyce Elliott, who will chair the Senate Education Committee next year. "To me, that is the crux of the matter in how we're going to address it."

The school funding decision came out as lawmakers are studying changes to the state's school choice law. A federal judge in June struck down the 1989 law, saying race couldn't be the only factor considered in deciding whether students could transfer between districts.

Though the state is appealing the decision, Attorney General Dustin McDaniel has recommended that lawmakers work on revising the law.

"My job is to continue litigating in defense of our existing state statute and I will do that at the 8th Circuit, but it would certainly seem to me to be reasonable for the General Assembly to err on the side of caution and render the litigation moot by passing a new statute," McDaniel said last week.

What that new law would look like remains unclear. Beebe and Republican lawmakers both say finding middle ground on the issue will be one of the biggest challenges facing the Legislature next year.

"You can have all kinds of chaos if you don't do this right," Beebe said. "So far, nobody has been able to figure out that middle ground. It's either total open or total closed, it appears to me, so I don't think anyone's come up with a solution yet that satisfies everybody."

The education committees in both chambers will also likely focus on charter schools and the way the state approves them. Charter school advocates are expected to push for new reforms, including the potential creation of a new entity to consider charter school applications. That process is currently handled by the state Board of Education.

Laurie Lee, executive director of the Arkansas Reform Alliance, said her group believes the state hasn't been receptive to allowing more charter schools in the state. Lee said her group would like to see an "independent authorizer" for the schools.



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