When it comes to public school-related legislation, this year’s General Assembly so far has focused on two words beginning with “C”: “charter schools” and “choice.”
A third sometimes controversial “C” word, “consolidation,” has barely come up.
The House Education Committee today voted down the only school consolidation bill that has been filed this session. HB 1076 by Rep. James Ratliff (D – Imboden) would have allowed school districts to count home-schooled students as part of the minimum 350 they need to stay open.
Schools in Arkansas are funded on a per pupil basis according to the number of students they serve.
The state has said in response to the Lake View Supreme Court ruling that school districts must have average daily memberships of 350 students, which is equal to one class per grade, in order to ensure enough funding for an adequate education. Districts that fall below that number for two straight years face consolidation.
Three districts finished last year with less than 350 students – Stephens, Lead Hill and Deer – Mt. Judea. According to Dr. Tom Kimbrell, state education commissioner, about 15 have around 400 or less.
Ratliff, who represents a sparsely populated northeast Arkansas district, argued that school districts are accountable for those students and that the bill would help small districts survive.
The bill would not have provided extra funding for those districts. School districts do get state funds on a pro rata basis for home-schooled students who attend individual classes or participate in activities.
Superintendents for two school districts, Greg Crabtree of Hillcrest and Dana Higdon of Mulberry – Pleasant View, testified in favor of the bill. Crabtree said his 300-square-mile district serves 371 students and that some students spend two-and-a-half hours each day on the bus. He said his district has 39 home-schooled students and that home-schoolers come in and out of the district. Higdon said her district hovers at the 350-student mark.
But Scott Richardson with the Arkansas attorney general’s office testified that districts would have a hard time remaining viable if they fall below 350 students. In fact, he said districts need to have at least 500 students, equal to two elementary classes per grade and one in middle and high schools. Changing the law, especially without any evidence that this effort would be effective, would make the state vulnerable to a lawsuit, he said.