Arkansas Republicans seek school reforms

by The City Wire staff ([email protected]) 18 views 

Republicans in the Arkansas House of Representatives are considering legislation that could empower an entity other than the state Board of Education to authorize charter schools.

Other possible legislation would create a tax credit scholarship program that would enable students to attend private schools.

The caucus earlier this year unveiled its SIMPLE plan, the “E” being “educational excellence,” and is still fleshing out the details, according to House Republican Leader Bruce Westerman, R-Hot Springs, and Rep. Mark Biviano, R-Searcy, the caucus’ policy committee chairman.

The two ideas, both related to increasing competition for students and their dollars, are coming into focus. One would remove the decision-making authority for granting charter school status from the state Board of Education and give it to a third party, or at least allow that authority to be shared by the Board and another entity. Charter schools are public schools funded through tax dollars that have greater flexibility in complying with state regulations.

The proposal has grown out of frustration among members of the caucus regarding denied charter school applications.

“I think we’ve got a longstanding bureaucracy there, and I don’t think it would be a bad idea to get some fresh ideas, maybe some third party perspective involved in it,” Biviano said.

Republicans also might propose a tax credit of perhaps 80% for donors who contribute to nonprofit agencies providing private school scholarships to students attending failing schools. The scholarship could be based on family income or could be available to students with special needs. Westerman said more than one non-profit agency could benefit from the tax credit.

Westerman and Biviano noted that while Arkansas has fared well in recent national education rankings, it lags in the area that matters most, student achievement. They said the proposals would encourage improvement through competition – in the charter school proposal, between public schools; in the scholarship proposal, between public and private schools.

Republicans are the minority party in a House that is split 54-46 and hope to gain control after the November elections.

Westerman said the Legislature should take a more active role in pushing education reforms.

“I believe the Legislature’s going to have to do its job,” he said, “and maybe not rely as heavily on the Department of Ed and the state Board of Education as we have in the past, where I think we’ve historically let the agencies lead. I think it’s time that the Legislature is going to have to lead a little bit more.”

Biviano said Republicans have been working with members of the business community who are concerned about the state’s performance in education. He said a group of “major companies” soon will announce an initiative designed to educate Arkansans about different approaches to education, including increased charter schools and more parental choice about where their children attend schools.

“They feel like the time has come here in Arkansas that we start to be a little more progressive and proactive in some of our educational initiatives,” he said.

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