Bill proposing moratorium on school mergers advances


LITTLE ROCK — The House Education Committee endorsed legislation Tuesday that would impose a two-year moratorium on school mergers based on student enrollment.

The panel rejected a bill that would provide state-funded vouchers for students to attend public or private schools of their choice.

Both bills are sponsored by Rep. Randy Alexander, R-Fayetteville.

House Bill 1938, the bill to impose a moratorium on mergers, passed on a voice vote after having failed in the same committee last month. The bill cleared the panel despite testimony against the measure from Attorney General Dustin McDaniel and the state education commissioner. It goes to the House.

Testifying in a committee room that was packed with spectators, including adults and children in shirts bearing the name of the group Arkansas Parents for School Choice, Alexander said he disagrees with the state law requiring schools that fall below 350-student enrollment for two consecutive years to merge with one or more nearby districts.

Alexander pointed to the example of the Weiner School District, which was annexed into the Harrisburg district in 2010 because of low enrollment. He said Weiner was never in fiscal or academic distress.

“We’re being asked to believe a theoretical model instead of our lying eyes,” Alexander said. “This argument is frankly ridiculous on its face. If a school is actually in financial or academic distress and does not respond to reasonable intervention, we have no problem with that school being closed.”

HB 1938 would bar the state Board of Education from approving school mergers through April 30, 2015, for reasons other than academic or fiscal distress, or for failure to comply with state accreditation standards. It would give the House and Senate education committees the option to extend the moratorium through Dec. 31, 2016.

The legislation would mandate a study in the interim of administrative reorganizations and student transportation in selected school districts.

A 2012 law required the state Department of Education and school districts that received students through mergers to develop a plan to track the educational progress of all students from the affected district, as well as specific subgroups including at-risk students, economically disadvantaged students and those from major racial and ethnic groups.

HB 1938 would require the state Bureau of Legislative Research, in conjunction with Education Department and Division of Public School Facilities and Transportation, to conduct a study of student transportation in districts selected by the education committees to assess how the time and cost of school transportation for students can or should be minimized within districts.

McDaniel reminded the committee that the 350-student threshold was a product of the state’s efforts to resolve the long-running Lake View lawsuit over school funding, in which the state Supreme Court ruled in 2002 that the state was not adequately and equitably funding public schools.

In 2007, the court ruled that adequacy had been met — approving legislative actions that included reforms, spending hikes and the 350-student minimum.

McDaniel and state Education Commissioner Tom Kimbrell warned that the state likely would end up back in court if Alexander’s bill were to become law. Kimbrell said the state already has been sued by one district, Deer-Mount Judea, which alleges that the state has not been adequately funding the district since its student population dropped below 500.

Alexander said after the hearing, “I would like to have an attorney general that, when we’re challenged in court on something that clearly we have the right to do, they would say, ‘Bring it on.’”

Alexander’s HB 1897 — the proposed Parental Choice Scholarship Program Act — failed on a voice vote and was referred to interim study.

Under the bill, state per-student funding in an amount that the resident school district receives would follow the child to any participating public, charter, magnet, alternative or private school of the parent or guardian’s choice.

Students would be eligible to participate in the program until they received a high school diploma or reach age 21 under the measure.

The bill would bar the state from imposing any additional regulations upon participating private schools and would specifically forbid state interference with the right of private schools to hire only staff whose beliefs are consistent with their religious values and practice.

Kimbrell and Assistant Attorney General Scott Richardson testified against the bill, saying it raised numerous questions and legal issues and needed more study.