The passage of a new school choice law was this session’s most important education-related measure, according to Sen. Johnny Key, R-Mountain Home, chairman of the Senate Education Committee.
Unlike the state’s previous school choice law, Act 1227 does not take into account a student’s race, though schools under a desegregation court order are exempt.
Nearly 16,000 students are attending a district other than the one where they live, but the state’s previous school choice law said that non-resident students could not transfer to a district where there was a higher percentage of the student’s race. The provision was meant to prevent white flight.
A group of parents in Malvern sued in order to transfer their children to nearby schools. A district court last year found the race-based provisions to be unconstitutional, but the case was under appeal. Under the district court’s decision, there had been no school choice option for Arkansas students until the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals rendered its decision.
Key said in an interview with Talk Business that Act 1227 passed despite the objections of many who would have preferred more guidance from the Eighth Circuit.
“That was the mantra by many folks was to wait,” he said. “I think the Governor’s office would have preferred to wait. The AG’s office, all the education establishment said we just need to wait on the Eighth Circuit to rule. And the fact that we were able to get to a compromise and make a school choice law happen, I think’s pretty significant. I am proud of that fact that we were able as a body to get to that point.”
Key’s bill originally allowed unfettered school choice options except when a district was under a desegregation order. However, opponents argued in testimony that such an open choice law would result in resegregation in parts of Arkansas, so Key amended it to address those concerns.
The law caps transfers from a district at three percent of its average daily population, will require the Department of Education to collect transfer data, and will expire on July 1, 2015, forcing the Legislature to revisit the law that year. It also contains a “grandfather clause” that allows students who have already transferred to remain in their new districts.
Key said other major education-related acts included Act 601 by Sen. Joyce Elliott, D-Little Rock, which creates districts of innovation that can request exemptions from regulations so they can apply new teaching methods.
Key said he had entered the session hoping not to “burden schools with new requirements.” He pointed to the Teacher Evaluation Support System, created by 2011 legislation, as a significant reform that schools need time to implement. The system sets up a process where teachers can be evaluated, improved and, if necessary, dismissed.
Among items still on the to-do list are a change in the way the state allocates National School Lunch Act funding. Under Act 1467 by Rep. James McLean, D-Batesville, the state will study its NSLA funding prior to the 2014 fiscal session.
The state allocates federal NSLA dollars based on the number of students receiving free and reduced lunch prices because of their family incomes.
The current state-based formula uses a tiered approach based on whether a district has 90 percent qualifying students, 70 percent, or less than 70 percent. That can result in a significant difference in funding. A district with exactly 70 percent qualifying students received $1,033 in NSLA funds per NSLA student in the 2012-13 school year and will receive that much next year. With one less qualifying student, it’s $517 per NSLA student.
Key’s Senate Bill 811 would have “smoothed” those differences and given more weight to students qualifying for free lunches than those qualifying for reduced prices. However, it ran into opposition when the model would have resulted in 73 percent of school districts losing funding.
Key said that while not every education-related need was addressed, “On the whole, though, I think we had a very successful education session. … We can certainly say that the work we did was good work, but looking forward, there’s still a lot of work that needs to be done.”