Gov. Mike Beebe on Tuesday will sign a comprehensive bill changing the way Arkansas allows public school students to transfer to other districts without changing their residency, according to his spokesperson, Matt DeCample.
DeCample said Monday that Beebe will sign Senate Bill 65 by Sen. Johnny Key (R-Mountain Home) as part of a batch of bills and will not hold a signing ceremony.
The school choice debate was among the most difficult education issues to resolve this session. At one time, at least eight bills dealing with the subject had been proposed. Key’s bill eventually gained four co-sponsors on the Senate Education Committee, which he chairs. That gave him five of the committee’s nine votes.
The state’s previous school choice law was declared unconstitutional in a district court last year because of its race-based provisions and currently is under appeal. That law did not allow students to transfer to a district with a higher percentage of students who were of their same race. A group of parents in Malvern sued to allow their children to transfer.
Under the district court’s decision, there had been no school choice option for Arkansas students until an appeals court rendered its decision. No one knew when that decision would be made.
Key’s bill originally removed most restrictions on transfers, including those based on race. However, opponents argued in testimony that such an open choice law would result in white flight and rapid resegregation in parts of Arkansas. Those included Dr. Bob Watson, superintendent of the El Dorado School District, and Dr. Jerry Guess, superintendent of the Pulaski County Special School District.
To allay those concerns, Key amended the bill in several ways. it will cap transfers at three percent of a district’s 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.
Key’s bill also contains a “grandfather clause” that allows students who have already transferred to remain in their new districts.
Key said in an interview after a Senate Education Committee meeting Monday that while he preferred an open choice policy, he entered the session knowing that passing such a bill would be difficult. He said it took a couple of months to build momentum for the proposal. The key point, he said, was the expiration date demonstrating that “it’s not our intent just to throw a law out there and say, ‘Here it is. Deal with it. We got what we wanted.’”
Key said he probably had enough votes earlier in the session to pass the bill out of the Senate. But he wanted a compromise bill that would gain universal support in that chamber to make it easier to pass the bill in the House.
“To me that’s the art of legislating,” he said. “I go into it with what I want, what I think is best, understanding that it’s give and take. I’ve seen examples of an all or nothing approach that in the end end in failure. …
“Folks on both sides are uncomfortable with different parts of it. Many times I find that that’s probably the best-case scenario.”