UPDATE: Ed committee rejects bills on charter facilities and civics testing; bill to end PARCC heads to final House vote

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RANDY ZOOK: The head of the Chamber of Commerce urged the committee allow charter schools to access underutilized public facilities.
  • RANDY ZOOK: The head of the Chamber of Commerce urged the committee allow charter schools to access underutilized public facilities.

UPDATE:
Sen. Clark, with the help of committee chair Bruce Cozart (R-Hot Springs), tried again this afternoon with the charter school "right of access" bill I described earlier (see below). It again failed on a roll call, narrowly. 

Despite testimony from Scott Shirey, head of the KIPP school in Helena, and Randy Zook of the State Chamber of Commerce, the bill could not overcome concerted opposition from the ten Democrats on the committee, who were bolstered by opposition from the state's influential associations representing superintendents and school boards. One Republican, Rep. Gary Deffenbaugh (R-Van Buren), also voted no.

In some ways, this was a smaller retread of the battle over HB 1733 earlier in the session, the ambitious bill that would have paved the way for greater privatization of Arkansas public schools through the establishment of a state "achievement school district." As with HB 1733, pro-charter reformers perhaps underestimated the level of opposition from the school boards and superintendents associations, who recognize that legislation taking authority away from local districts has the effect of chipping away at the power of public education as a whole, not just districts in academic distress. HB 1733 was eventually shelved when it became clear it could not get out of committee.

Turns out that Democrats can still have a tiny measure of leverage in the General Assembly if it's applied in the right place. As the 2015 legislative session was beginning, Dems (who now comprise perhaps a third of the seats in the legislature) managed to strategically wrangle half of the seats on House Education, enough to block legislation from getting out of that committee.

They established a similar beachhead on the other side of the Capitol in Senate Judiciary, where four Democrats controlled half of that eight-person committee. There, they managed to block HB 1228, the pernicious bill by Rep. Bob Ballinger to open the door to discrimination based on "religious conscience" exemptions, until Sen. David Burnette (D-Osceola) eventually flipped his vote under still puzzling circumstances.


In any case, getting a critical mass of Democratic votes on House Education seems to have been a good idea for public schools.

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ORIGINAL POST: The House Education committee this morning failed a bill by Sen. Alan Clark (R-Lonsdale) that would have created a "right of access" for charter schools to lease unused or underutilized facilities from a public school district. The committee also rejected a second try by Sen. Jason Rapert (R-Bigelow) to require high school students to pass the United States citizenship test as a prerequisite to graduation, which I wrote about last week.

In Arkansas, charter schools already have a right of first refusal to purchase or lease a closed public school at fair market value if the district puts up the facilities for sale. But in Helena-West Helena recently, some within the beleaguered school district attempted to avoid selling two shuttered school properties at all, rather than doing business with charter school KIPP: Delta College Prep. (A judge ruled earlier this month that the facilities sale to KIPP may proceed as planned.)

Clark said his bill "requires that if you have an empty or underused building, that you list that building ... rather than letting the building sit and rot and fall down." He said that the bill would help minority students and would be fair to taxpayers who send their kids to charter schools. In Helena, community members argued against the KIPP sale on the grounds that the district's buildings were paid for by taxpayers and it wouldn't be right to sell them to a private entity at such a low price (especially when local control of district decisions has been dissolved by the State Board of Education.)

Rep. Reginald Murdock (D-Marianna) — whose district is next door to Helena — said that he appreciated the intent of the bill but worried that it would "cause more division in the community." KIPP has become a very divisive subject in the Delta. The bill nearly passed on a voice vote, but failed when a roll call vote was requested. 

The committee also quietly turned down Sen. Rapert's bill to require a civics test as a prerequisite for high school graduation, again. Backing for the bill comes from a group called the Civics Education Initiative. Rapert assured the committee that the bill would have no fiscal impact, since United States Citizenship and Immigration Services makes the test available for free, but he did not convince Rep. John Walker (D-Little Rock) that that was the case. 

"Any time you impose a statewide test upon anybody, there has to be costs — in giving the test, in evaluating the test, it's going to cause teachers to be away [from instruction]," Walker said.

I don't think Rapert's intent with this bill is bad. I think he's right that civics and social studies in general are sadly neglected by our core K-12 curriculum; only increased in the past 15 years, with No Child Left Behind perversely over-prioritizing math and English testing, especially in struggling schools. But again, I don't think imposing yet another testing mandate is the right way to fix that. And Walker is right about costs — USCIS may make the test available for free, but I don't think immigration officials ever envisioned giving it to potentially hundreds of thousands of Arkansas students every year. The Department of Education would have to get involved in a big way. School districts would have to reconfigure their spring testing schedules.

Administering a standardized test — especially a high-stakes one that's a prerequisite to graduation — is always a massive undertaking, as anyone who's ever worked in a school can tell you. Multiply that by every high school in the state and there's just no way it doesn't bite into other education priorities in the process.

The committee did give approval to the amended version of HB 1241, the bill by Rep. Mark Lowery (R-Maumelle) that would require the state wind down its use of the PARCC test (Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers). The original bill would have stopped PARCC testing cold in the current academic year, but the amended bill merely says the State Board of Education shall not renew its participation in PARCC beyond the 2015-16 school year.

HB 1241 does not affect Arkansas's broader use of Common Core State Standards, upon which PARCC is based. It now heads to the House floor.

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