Posted 12/9/2012 02:26 pm
Updated 5 months ago
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.
"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.