Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson defended the state Board of Education’s decision to retain part of its control over the Little Rock School District and also said he supports “the direction” of a bill that would raise taxes on vaping products.
Hutchinson made the comments Monday (Sept. 23) during a press availability in his office at the Capitol.
Hutchinson said the Lake View School District No. 25 v. Huckabee court case made it clear the state is responsible for providing all students an adequate and equitable education.
“If the state ignored the academic performance measures and returned all schools without sufficient support,” he said, “then we would surely have dedicated civil rights lawyers immediately filing a lawsuit saying we’re not meeting our obligations under the Lake View decision. … There are those who want the state to abandon its constitutional and moral responsibility to the students. The state Board of Education made it clear that we will not do that.”
The board voted Sept. 20 on a framework to return local control to the Little Rock School District after nearly five years of state oversight.
A nine-person board of directors would be elected in November 2020. The plan would also establish three categories of schools. Category 1 would be higher-performing schools that would operate under the new local board’s control. Category 2 schools would include schools undergoing reconfigurations. They could operate under local school board supervision, but the state board would determine which schools qualify.
Category 3 schools would be those with an “F” grade on state assessments. These schools would operate under different leadership but in partnership with the district.
Hutchinson said most students will attend schools under local control after the district holds school board elections. He said the state board’s framework is based on constitutional responsibilities, not geography, and that it’s still not known which of the three categories schools will fall into.
“I absolutely reject the proposition that this is resegregation of the Little Rock School District,” he said. “That is wrong. It is not based in fact. And it is really trying to resurrect an old history that has no application today.”
At the state board meeting, former Hutchinson aide and current state Board member Sarah Moore moved to revoke the negotiating authority of the Little Rock teacher’s union, the Little Rock Education Association. The board tabled the motion for consideration at next month’s board meeting in October.
The board did vote for an outside agency to oversee teachers’ election to a personnel policies committee.
Hutchinson said he believes such a committee would allow teachers and staff members to exert sufficient influence on school policies, but he said the decision on that matter rests with Secretary of Education Johnny Key and the state Board of Education.
After the press availability, Sen. Linda Chesterfield, D-Little Rock, argued that the state board had not changed the general direction of its plans since the first of its four community meetings with district patrons.
“The majority of those folks on that board don’t know our citizens, don’t really know how the Little Rock Education Association works, doesn’t know or care what we think, and you begin to think, well was this just all fluff and bluster?” she said.
Chesterfield represents Little Rock in the legislature and is a former teacher and Little Rock School Board president.
Parents Ali Noland and Vicki Hatter also spoke against the state board’s decision. Noland, who is white, stood next to Hatter, who is African-American, and pointed out that only Noland would be able to exercise control over the school board because of where their children attend school.
In other business, Hutchinson expressed support for a proposal by Sen. Jim Hendren, R-Gravette, that would enact a 67% tax on vaping products and create other restrictions similar to those on combustible cigarettes.
“I do support the direction of his bill,” Hutchinson said. “I think it can be fine-tuned, but I’m very supportive of what he’s trying to accomplish with that bill.”
Hendren hopes to pass the bill in a special session provided he can generate enough support to merit calling one. Hutchinson said a possible future special session would depend on that amount of support.
Hendren’s School Safety Act would dedicate revenues to school facility safety and security improvements along with mental health counselors for students with an addiction or other mental health issues.
Hendren earlier this year proposed Senate Bill 571, which would have levied what amounted to a 67% tax rate on e-cigarette products. The proceeds would have been used to provide an earned income tax credit, a tax refund for lower-income Arkansans. It also would have levied a 20% special excise tax at the retail level on cigarettes, or 80 cents a pack. It passed the Senate but died in the House.
Hutchinson also announced the creation of the Buffalo River Conservation Committee, a public-private partnership involving state agencies and private conservation groups. It will seek to protect the Buffalo National River by supporting best practices and providing grants for farmers, landowners and cities and counties within the river’s watershed.
The program will start with $2 million in grant seed money — $1 million of which will come from the governor’s discretionary funds and $1 million of which will come from the Nature Conservancy and the Buffalo River Foundation.