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.

"It's our belief charter schools are part of the answer to helping complement our traditional public schools," Lee said.

Open-enrollment charter schools receive tax dollars and operate based on the terms of their charters, or contracts, with the state Board of Education. State education officials issue contracts for up to five years. Arkansas currently has 18 open enrollment charter schools, with three more scheduled to open next year.

The state has 14 district conversion charter schools, which are public schools that have been converted to charters.

Sen. Johnny Key, who will chair the Senate Education Committee next year, said 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.

"There may be something out there that does work well for us in Arkansas," said Key, R-Mountain Home. "The more options we have for educational opportunities the better."

State Education Commissioner Tom Kimbrell said he believed the state has already been open to allowing charter schools, and noted that a sliding cap on the number of charters in the state has given Arkansas more flexibility. The law, approved last year, increases by five whenever the number of open-enrollment charter schools in the state is within two slots of meeting the limit. The current cap for open-enrollment charter schools in the state is 24.

Kimbrell said he would be opposed to changing the way charters are approved.

"If we're not authorizing those and vetting those and some other entity is and then we have to step in and make those hard decisions, that's a difficult position to put my staff and our agency in," Kimbrell said.

An even more dramatic change is being proposed by House Republicans, who are expected to back legislation that would create a private school scholarship program. House Republican Leader Bruce Westerman said the proposal would create a nonprofit to award scholarships to private schools and contributors would be given tax credits up to a certain amount.

Westerman, R-Hot Springs, argued the proposal would save the state money because the tax credit would be likely be cheaper than the average per-student cost for public schools.

"It takes a child who may not be performing well in public school and puts them in an environment where they may be performing better," Westerman said.

The proposal will face heavy opposition from Beebe and other Democrats, who say it's no different than a private school voucher system that they argue would take money away from the state's public schools.

"If it's going to private schools, it causes a problem for me," Beebe said.

Elliott said she's worried that the focus on charter schools, private school scholarships and other measures will end up taking away support for public schools.

"I'm very concerned if we just keep winnowing away support for traditional public schools via charters or vouchers, we will take away so much that it will be impossible to have schools that serve everybody," said Elliott, D-Little Rock.

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