Senate gives final approval to school choice bill


LITTLE ROCK — The state Senate on Thursday gave final approval to legislation rewriting the state school choice law.

The House passed two bills seeking to overhaul the state Medicaid program.

Senate Bill 65 by Johnny Key, R-Mountain Home, was approved 32-1 after the Senate concurred on four House amendments. The bill now goes to the governor.

Passage of the measure comes as the state awaits a federal appeals court ruling on a challenge to a district judge’s decision last year that struck down Arkansas’ 25-year-old school choice law.

When approved by the Senate last month, SB 65 would have removed race as a factor in school transfers. Key, however, had the measure amended in the House to cap school transfers at 3 percent annually and include a July 1, 2015, expiration date to allow lawmakers to review the legislation in light of the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals’ eventual ruling.

Other amendments added in the House included requiring the Department of Education to collect transfer data and to report to the education committees; restrict transfers from districts currently under desegregation orders; and specify that all transfers approved prior to enactment of the proposed new law would be exempt from it.

“Passing legislation of this magnitude takes a lot of compromise,” Key said later. “In the end, it’s positive for parents and students.”

Earlier this week, the Senate passed House Bill 1294 by Rep. Kim Hammer, R-Benton, under which a student approved for transfer to a non-resident district under a provision of law that is later struck down or repealed would be allowed to finish school in the new district, and any present or future sibling could transfer to the district as well.

That bill is now waiting for the House to consider concurrence in a Senate amendment.

Last year, U.S. District Judge Robert Dawson struck down Arkansas’ school choice law, ruling that a race-based provision in the 1989 law violated the 14th Amendment to the Constitution, which guarantees equal protection under the law.

Dawson sided with parents living in the Malvern School District who challenged the school choice law after the Malvern district cited its desegregation provision in warning them to return their children who had enrolled in mostly white surrounding districts.

The ruling was appealed to the 8th Circuit, which heard oral arguments in January at St. Louis.

Also Thursday, the Senate passed SB 794 by Sen. Linda Chesterfield, D-Little Rock, which would require legislative review of any administrative annexation or consolidation of school districts by the state Board of Education.

Under the bill, which passed 33-0, within 10 days of the state taking over a troubled school district, the state education commissioner would be required to explain to the House and Senate education committees why the takeover was needed and what the district must do to regain its independence. Also, every three months the education committees would have to be updated on the progress of all schools that have been taken over by the state.

The bill also requires that if a district fails to show improvement after two years of a takeover, the education commissioner must conduct a review to determine whether the person appointed by the state to be interim superintendent of the district is doing a good job. That review would have to be presented to lawmakers.

The House voted 68-9 to approve SB 914 by Sen. David Sanders, R-Little Rock, which would establish the Office of Medicaid Inspector General within the governor’s office for the purpose of rooting out waste, fraud and abuse in Medicaid.

“This is a significant change that will allow us to shine transparency into the Department of Human Services,” Rep. Bruce Westerman, R-Hot Springs, said while presenting the bill in the House.

Rep. Bruce Wilkins, D-Bono, pointed out that the bill would create two new government positions, an inspector general and a deputy inspector general, at annual salaries of $150,000 each. He asked how he could justify that expense to his constituents.

“I believe that the money that they save will greatly outweigh the cost of the director and the deputy director,” Westerman said.

Rep. Darrin Williams, D-Little Rock, asked Westerman if the office would duplicate work already being done by the attorney general’s office. Westerman said the he believed the new office would enhance the work being done by the division of the AG’s office that investigates Medicaid fraud, which he said now recovers about $7 million a year.

Williams also asked if passing SB 914 and other Medicaid reforms bills was politically necessary in order to pass the private option for expanding health care coverage under the federal Affordable Care Act.

Westerman answered that “if we fail to reform the existing system, it will certainly cast doubt on people’s ability to vote to expand the existing system.”

Speaking in support of the bill, Rep. Randy Alexander, R-Fayetteville, said that in his mind the issues of Medicaid reform and health care expansion are tied together and that if SB 914 did not pass, “this is a deal breaker for me.”

The bill goes to the Senate for concurrence in a House amendment.

The House also passed another Medicaid reform bill, SB 1019 by Sen. Jonathan Dismang, R-Beebe, which would require the state to track the reported incomes of people applying for Medicaid and determine whether they match the federal government’s records of their incomes. The bill passed 75-1 and goes to the governor.

In a 72-6 vote, the House approved SB 874 by Sen. Jason Rapert, R-Conway, which would allow a person to be charged with negligent homicide if the person causes a fatal accident while driving after being awake for 24 hours or more. The bill goes to the governor.

The House voted 83-0 to pass SB 1011 by Sen. Missy Irvin, R-Mountain View, which would establish a specific violation of the code of ethics for an educator suspected of being involved in an inappropriate relationship with a student. The bill goes to the Senate for concurrence in a House amendment.

Elsewhere Thursday, the House Public Health, Welfare and Labor committee endorsed SB 1010 by Sen. Jeremy Hutchinson, R-Little Rock, which would require all mattresses sold in the state to bear a label stating whether they are all new or contain previously used materials. Selling a used mattress as new would be a Class A misdemeanor, punishable by up to a year in jail and a $1,000 fine.

The bill goes to the House.