A school choice bill that would allow students to attend schools outside their home districts passed the Senate Education Committee Wednesday (March 27) after the sponsor pledged to amend the bill in the House to address concerns that it would lead to resegregation.

Senate Bill 65 by Sen. Johnny Key (R-Mountain Home) would allow students to transfer regardless of race.

The state’s previous school choice law was declared unconstitutional in a district court last year because of its race-based provisions and currently is under appeal. That law did not allow students to transfer to a district with a higher percentage of students who were of their same race. A group of parents in Malvern sued to allow their students to transfer. There currently is no school choice option, though some are hoping the appeals court renders its decision before the next school year.

Key’s bill removes the race-based provision but has run into opposition from legislators and others who fear it would lead to rapid resegregation.

To allay those concerns, Key pledged to offer amendments in the House that would cap transfers at three percent of a district’s average daily population. The amendments also would require the Department of Education to collect transfer data. The act as amended would expire on July 1, 2015, forcing the Legislature to revisit the law, he said.

Key’s bill is one of numerous school choice proposals in this year’s session, but his has four co-sponsors on the Senate Education Committee, enough to assure passage there. House Bill 1294 by Rep. Kim Hammer (R-Benton) would allow students who have already transferred to remain in their new districts, but it failed by one vote in the Senate. Key said his amendments would also include such a “grandfather” provision.

Key’s bill passed by voice vote with no objections. The co-chair of the committee, Sen. Joyce Elliott (D-Little Rock), who also has proposed a school choice bill, was temporarily chairing the committee while Key presented his bill and didn’t vote. She said after the meeting that she was tentatively supportive, though she would have to see the final package.

Key said after the meeting that he was amending the bill in the House rather than in the Senate because time in the session is running short and it needed to be introduced into that chamber.

The committee also passed Senate Bill 814 by Key, which would end the high-stakes tests that students must pass in order to graduate. Students currently must take the test after completing Algebra I, and next year they must take a 10th grade literacy test.

Key said the bill was needed to align testing with curriculum as the state transitions to the Common Core State Standards, a group of standards being adopted by most states, that has its own assessment procedures.

The committee also passed a bill by Sen. Linda Chesterfield (D-Little Rock) requiring a study of whether discipline is being administered fairly to various student populations, and a bill by Elliott requiring students in grades K-3 to be screened for dyslexia and related conditions and to provide support for those who need it. A bill by Sen. Robert Thompson (D-Paragould) passed that would make students who drop out of high school but earn a GED before they would have graduated equally eligible for the Academic Challenge Scholarship as other students their age.

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Steve Brawner

Steve Brawner

Steve Brawner is a freelance journalist and contributor to Talk Business & Politics. He is also a syndicated columnist in 10 Arkansas newspapers. You can email him at brawnersteve@mac.com or follow him on Twitter: @SteveBrawner.