School Choice Bill Falls One Vote Short In Senate

by Steve Brawner (BRAWNERSTEVE@MAC.COM) 4 views 

House Bill 1294, which would allow students who have transferred under the state’s old school choice law to stay in their new districts, failed to pass the Senate today by one vote, 17-6.

In other business, the Senate passed a bill ending the requirement that the director of higher education have experience as an educator on a college campus. It also passed a bill moving school board elections to November. Both bills move to the House.

A district court said last year that the state’s old school choice law, enacted in 1989, was unconstitutional because of its race-based provisions. Under that law, students were not allowed to transfer to districts with a higher percentage of fellow students who were of the same race as the transferring student.

Eight bills have been filed to address the issue, including Senate Bill 65 by Sen. Johnny Key (R-Mountain Home), which would allow unlimited school choice options for districts not involved in a desegregation case. It has four co-sponsors on the Senate Education Committee, enough for passage.

House Bill 1294 by Rep. Kim Hammer (R-Benton) already has passed the House. Key asked the Senate sponsor, Sen. Eddie Cheatham (D-Crossett), if passage of the bill might provide ammunition to those who say legislators should wait to see how the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals rules on the old law. Cheatham conceded that point.

After the vote, Cheatham asked that the vote be expunged, allowing it to be brought up for debate again. He said afterwards that he would ask Hammer what he wanted to do next.

The Senate also passed by a count of 26-2 Senate Bill 812 by Sen. Jeremy Hutchinson (R-Benton), ending the requirement that the director of higher education have experience on a college campus.

That requirement has prevented the current interim director, Shane Broadway, from assuming the job on a permanent basis. Broadway has been the interim since February 2011.

The Arkansas Department of Higher Education Coordinating Board tried to appoint Broadway two years ago. Sen. Jane English (R-Little Rock), who in 2011 asked for the attorney general’s opinion that helped stop that appointment, spoke against the bill and voted against it.

Hutchinson argued that the law was not intended specifically to address only Broadway’s situation but was meant to improve the department’s ability to find a qualified applicant at reasonable cost. The director’s duties are managerial – allocating funding to colleges using a funding formula and administering college scholarships. Hutchinson said the requirement is driving up the salary expectations for the job.

Senate Bill 587 by Sen. Eddie Joe Williams (R-Cabot), which passed 26-8 with no debate, would move school board elections to the Tuesday after the first Monday each November. In even-numbered years, the election would fall on the same day as general elections. The bill allows the county board of election commissioners to create a separate ballot for school elections if deemed necessary to prevent voter confusion.