Public schools won’t be the most contentious issue facing the Legislature this year — that honor will go to Medicaid.
But a healthy debate will occur about the choices parents should have regarding where they send their children, and how much help the state should give them to make those choices.
Medicaid — which serves the poor, those with disabilities and nursing home residents — will be contentious because it faces a $300 million shortfall and because there is a huge debate over whether it should be expanded under Obamacare. Medicaid is government-managed health care, after all, so there are fundamental differences between the two parties.
With public schools, the differences are more subtle, even though that’s government-managed education. Most Republican legislators grew up in public schools, and a number of them have been connected to them as a teacher, administrator or school board member.
Still, as a group they are generally “pro-choice” when it comes to giving students more public school alternatives, the idea being that competition will make all schools better and that no student should be forced to stay in a bad school.
Many Democrats — though not all, because this is Arkansas — as well as the education establishment are skeptical of that strategy. Fix the school rather than take students away from it, they say, and don’t send tax dollars to private schools.
But Republicans are in the majority, they are more unified, they have the momentum — they’re even younger and more energetic. So we’ll see a number of proposals from them this year related to increasing education alternatives.
One bill would provide special needs students money to attend a private school rather than public school special education classes. Rep. Ann Clemmer, R-Benton, a college professor and the House GOP’s point person on education, told me the measure is needed because so many children now are being diagnosed with autism and need better alternatives.
There are few private schools serving children with special needs in Arkansas, especially in rural areas, but Clemmer said a guaranteed source of income might inspire more to open.
Another bill would create a tax credit for Arkansans who donate money to nonprofit organizations that provide private school scholarships. If passed, it would mean that more money — but not tax dollars — would be available to send students to private schools. Opponents will call it a back-door attempt to siphon money from public schools.
Republicans also want to remove the authority of approving charter schools from the governor-appointed state Board of Education, which sets policies on a state level sort of like school boards do on a local level. Charter schools are public schools, funded by the government like any other, that have more freedom to experiment and innovate. Republicans like them and believe the state board is dragging its feet in approving new ones.
The most contentious education issue this session will involve the state’s school choice law, or the one that existed until a district judge declared it unconstitutional last year. Previously, students could transfer to districts without living in them so long as the new district didn’t have a higher percentage of their race than the one they were leaving.
The idea was to prevent so many white kids from transferring to mostly white districts that the state would gradually re-segregate. Some parents sued because, naturally, they wanted to send their children to what they believed were the best available schools. The court threw out the whole law because of its race-based provision. So, for now, school choice doesn’t exist at all.
The law must be fixed this session to comply with the court decision. Legislators will need the wisdom of Solomon as they contend with questions of rights, race and choice.
It won’t be as tough as Medicaid, but it will be difficult enough.
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Steve Brawner is an independent journalist in Arkansas. his blog — Independent Arkansas — is linked at arkansasnews.com. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org