Battle over future of education far from over, lawmakers say

Rep. Bruce Cozart (R-Hot Springs)

As expected, the tug of war between school choice advocates and defenders of traditional public schools played out in Arkansas’s 91st General Assembly, which concluded its flurry of lawmaking last week.

In the wake of the 2017 legislative session, charter schools have gained the right to force school districts to sell or lease underutilized public school buildings. The Succeed Scholarship, a voucher program that uses public funds to pay private school tuition for a limited number of children with disabilities, was expanded to include foster children in group homes and to no longer require accreditation for participating private schools. The Succeed Scholarship also received a 62.5 percent increase in funding. Efforts by Democratic lawmakers to place a moratorium on new charter schools in districts under state control and to require charters to comply with the Freedom of Information Act failed in committee.

Although school choice advocates won most battles this session, they were unable to pass a bill that would have established savings accounts to be used at parents' discretion to pay for private school and other education costs. The bill had two iterations: Senate Bill 746 and House Bill 1222. Both failed in the House, with the Republican majority split on the issue. Critics said education savings accounts are a roundabout way of establishing a voucher program and that they

Rep. Mark Lowery (R-Maumelle), who was a co-sponsor of the House version of the education savings account bill, said its failure was a big loss.

“Legislators gave into the hysteria of superintendents over this program,” he said. “Many times local school districts fall into this lockstep acceptance of only doing things the way they have done them before, and there is the fear of the unknown that I think overshadows the fact that most legislators think that school choice is a positive choice in public education.”

“I think if we have that much power, that’s awesome,” said Richard Abernathy, executive director of the Arkansas Association of Educational Administrators, which represents superintendents. “Truth be known, it was poor public policy. That’s why the bill didn’t get through.”

Superintendents are perceived as having significant influence among legislators of both parties, especially in the House. In some rural House districts, public schools may be the largest employers in the community. Abernathy testified against the education savings account bill on behalf of superintendents, who view private schools as competitors. In Arkansas, education funding is tied to each student, so when students leave public school to attend private school, school districts lose money. In smaller districts, declining enrollment could also lead to the closing of schools.

Abernathy said superintendents were not the only group against the bill. SB 746 and HB 1222 had a long list of opponents, including the Arkansas Education Association (which represents public school teachers), the Arkansas School Boards Association, the Arkansas Rural Education Association and the Rural Community Alliance.

Sen. Alan Clark (R-Lonsdale) said that while the majority of people in Arkansas support school choice, “a lot of our legislators were scared to death because of superintendents and teachers. There is a very vocal element that does not support school choice.”

Clark said he worked behind the scenes with the lead sponsor of the Senate version of the bill, Sen. Blake Johnson (R-Corning), and the Arkansas Association of Educational Administrators to fix problems in the legislation, such as a lack of protection against racial discrimination in private schools.

“I dealt with every problem [the superintendents] had. Once we fixed the bill, they came up with more problems,” he said. “I think the opponents mostly worried that it would work.” Clark said he thinks school choice could be the big issue in the next election.

Tracey-Ann Nelson, the executive director of the Arkansas Education Association, said even though the education savings account bill failed, it’s not “dead forever.”

“We just get a breather,” she said adding that the next version will be “bigger, stronger, more peeling off of resources from kids.”

Clark, Lowery and House Education Committee chairman Rep. Bruce Cozart (R-Hot Springs) agreed that a bill that establishes education savings accounts will be back in future legislative sessions. The lead sponsor of the bill, Rep. Jim Dotson (R-Bentonville), said a better version of the bill will pass in a few years.

“I think we’ve started the discussion,” Dotson said. “Making K-12 education better is a continuous process. It’s not a one-time, end-all idea. This education savings account idea, it is something with broad support among parents. … Now it will just take some time for those parents to begin to have public demand for it.”

Dotson said education has developed into his “No. 1 passion.”

The contentious battles over school choice have led some lawmakers and advocates to urge Governor Hutchinson to start a comprehensive conversation on the future of education in Arkansas. Cozart and Rep. Kim Hammer (R-Benton) called on the governor to create a blue ribbon commission while speaking on the House floor against SB 746.

“If not a blue ribbon commission, then let’s put a task force together,” said Cozart during an interview. “What are we looking at in the future? Are we going to have brick-and-mortar schools? More charter schools? More private schools? More homeschoolers?”

It seems to be a bipartisan idea. “I think we are in a precarious position,” said Sen. Joyce Elliott (D-Little Rock), vice-chair of the Senate Education Committee. “We have no vision towards which we are working. We passed all kinds of disparate bills not connected to anything necessarily. That gives me a great deal of concern for what education will look like in the state in the long run.”

During the session, when asked about the possibility of creating a blue ribbon commission, Hutchinson pointed to work being done by ForwARd Arkansas — a collaboration between the Walton Family Foundation, the Winthrop Rockefeller Foundation and the Arkansas Department of Education — which is aimed at improving education in the state. Elliott, who is on the steering committee of ForwARd Arkansas, said the legislature should follow the lead of that initiative and work to create a “world class” education system in Arkansas.

State Commissioner of Education Johnny Key said he doesn’t know the likelihood of forming a blue ribbon commission on education. “That’s what adequacy does,” he said, referring to Act 57 of 2003, which requires the education committees to regularly study and make recommendations on Arkansas’s education system. Under the adequacy process, the legislature determines what level of funding the state must provide in order to offer an adequate education to all public school students.

“Before we make another blue ribbon commission, my suggestion would be to sit down before we start the adequacy review process and identify what evaluations need to happen that aren’t happening,” Key said.

Some legislators think the talk of creating a new commission was a delay tactic to avoid a difficult vote on HB 1222 and SB 746.

“I think the call for a blue ribbon commission was just an attempt to derail the education savings account debate,” Lowery said. “There is probably no area of public policy that is studied more than education.”

Dotson agreed. “I kind of view that as a delay tactic to try to stop this bill this session.  … I think we do that ad nauseam in the education committee.”

But Dotson also said he’d wholeheartedly welcome the opportunity to participate in such a committee. “If something spins out of it as a deeper look at education as a whole, I’m open to that, because education is one of those things that has the biggest impact on future generations.”

This reporting is courtesy of the Arkansas Nonprofit News Network, an independent, nonpartisan news project dedicated to producing journalism that matters to Arkansans.

The Arkansas Nonprofit News Network is an independent, nonpartisan news organization dedicated to producing journalism that matters to Arkansans. Our work is re-published by partner newsrooms across the state.