A bill that would do away with the requirement that school districts maintain enrollments of 350 students in order to avoid consolidation passed the House Education Committee Tuesday. Meanwhile, a bill providing students vouchers to attend the school of their choice, public or private, failed in the same committee.

House Bill 1938 by Rep. Randy Alexander (R-Fayetteville) would end the current 350-student minimum and allow the state to force a reorganization only if a district is found to be in academic distress, fiscal distress, or fails to comply with state accreditation standards.

The 350-student minimum became the state’s norm in response to the Supreme Court’s Lake View decision. Policymakers determined that was the minimum amount in order to provide adequate and equitable funding for students in all districts. Districts are provided foundation funding by the state based on the number of students they enroll.

Alexander testified that the 350 number is a “theoretical construct, a model” that has nothing to do with academic achievement and that schools with more students have struggled while smaller schools have done well. He pointed specifically to Weiner, which had succeeded academically but was forced to consolidate with neighboring Harrisburg. The State Board of Education recently endorsed a decision by the Harrisburg School District to close Weiner High School.

Alexander said a school like Weiner should not be required to close because of the 350 number. “We’re being asked to believe a theoretical model rather than our lying eyes,” he said.

However, Attorney General Dustin McDaniel and Dr. Tom Kimbrell, commissioner of the Arkansas Department of Education, testified that removing the 350 minimum could open the state up to litigation because the state’s funding system is based on that number.

Kimbrell said the state could be sued by districts that fall below the 350 figure and then as a result struggle financially. He said schools with less than 350 students have problems with teacher availability in certain subjects.

Meanwhile, House Bill 1897, also by Alexander, would have created a parental choice scholarship for students to attend the school of their choice. While it attracted enough supporters to force Capitol Police to close the room to additional spectators, it failed to collect enough votes to pass the committee.

Under the bill, money would have followed students that was worth 92 percent of the state’s per pupil foundation funding and professional development funding for the students’ resident districts. Alexander called it “the most wide open school choice scholarship program in the country.”

Leslie Hiner with the Friedman Institute for Educational Choice in Indianapolis testified that there are now 41 school choice programs in 22 states and the District of Columbia. She said the program would provide families more choices and force schools to improve.

However, the bill ran into problems in committee because of the substantial change it would have caused to the state’s school funding formula, because of questions about its complying with the Arkansas Constitution, and because of some of its details.

For example, while all schools would have been required to administer tests, the state would not have had the ability to mandate any changes to the educational curricula of a private school. Alexander argued that parents could best make that decision using information gleaned from the test.

In other business, the committee passed House Bill 1489 by Rep. Kim Hammer (R-Benton) that would remove a student’s eligibility for the Arkansas Academic Challenge Scholarship Program if he or she completes zero college hours during their first semester of school.

The award is provided on a year-long basis. Shane Broadway, interim director of the Arkansas Department of Higher Education, testified that in 2010-11, there were 475 students out of 32,000 recipients who finished the fall semester without completing any hours. Eighty completed no hours for the year, costing the state $325,000.

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