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School-choice bill could return in Legislature

Teacher pay, state formula for funding on ’19 agenda by Hunter Field | January 1, 2019 at 4:30 a.m.

Arkansas lawmakers in the coming legislative session will consider pay raises for low-earning teachers, changes to the state's education funding formula and whether journalism should be a mandatory course offering in high school.

However, it remains unclear what shape school-choice legislation will take, although members of both parties expect controversial bills to enter the debate.

The House Education Committee chairman, Rep. Bruce Cozart, R-Hot Springs, said he expects an unsuccessful bill from 2017, which would have created a pilot program to let parents use education savings accounts to cover private school tuition and other education costs, to return in some form in 2019.

"I don't know who's carrying it this time," Cozart said. "But I'm hearing that it's going to come back." The bill passed the Senate but failed, by one vote, in the House.

Rep. Jim Dotson, R-Bentonville, was Senate Bill 746's primary backer in the House. Asked this week about the prospect of the bill returning, Dotson was coy.

"I'm sure we'll have something school-choice-wise," Dotson said. "What the details are? I'm not sure yet."

The General Assembly will convene for its biennial regular session on Jan. 14 to consider bills. It's likely to vote on a plan backed by Gov. Asa Hutchinson and the House and Senate education committees to raise the minimum salary for teachers of all levels of experience throughout the salary schedule.

The governor has proposed raising the minimum teacher salary -- currently $31,800 -- by about $1,000 a year over the next four years to $36,000. His office expects the pay boosts to cost about $60 million a year.

The education committees, meeting jointly, included the first two years of salary increases in their report on educational adequacy, which addresses funding needs of schools. Cozart expects the recommendations to sail through the Legislature without a problem.

Cozart said he's working on a bill that would change the way Arkansas funds public school transportation. Those costs are one of several factors lawmakers consider when calculating the base per-student funding formula for public school districts every two years.

However, Cozart said there is great disparity in transportation costs across school districts in the state. Typically, rural districts must spend a much higher percentage of their funds on transportation when compared with more urban districts.

Cozart is proposing funding education on an as-needed basis rather than as part of the base per-pupil funding formula.

"That will fund transportation in a way where each district will get exactly what they need," he said.

Sen. Joyce Elliott of Little Rock, a prominent Democrat on the Education Committee, said she plans to continue "pushing more transparency among charter schools." A proposal on the issue died in 2017.

She also said she plans to revive a bill to eliminate corporal punishment in Arkansas schools, "much to the chagrin of everyone." That bill died in committee in 2017 with Elliott as the only "yes" vote.

The school-choice bill, sponsored by Dodson and Sen. Blake Johnson, R-Corning, in the last regular session would have created education saving accounts, worth about $6,700 annually. Parents would decide how to spend the money, but the payments would be made by nonprofit groups to education providers.

The accounts would be funded by individuals and corporations diverting income-tax dollars to the nonprofit groups in exchange for state income tax credits.

Private school tuition, textbooks, college testing, summer programs, speech pathology, transportation and school uniforms would have been allowable costs.

Proponents of the bill said it would allow families to tailor students' education around specific needs. Opponents criticized the proposal for diverting money away from public schools.

Hutchinson said in 2018 he would support the measure if it's introduced again in 2019.

Several other education-related bills have already been filed during the Legislature's pre-filing period:

• House Bill 1003 by Rep. Jimmy Gazaway, R-Paragould, would require additional anti-bullying efforts in public schools.

• House Bill 1007 by Dodson would allow school districts to consider out-of-state teaching experience when determining a newly hired teacher's salary.

• House Bill 1014 by Rep. Julie Mayberry, R-Hensley, would require public schools to provide bleeding-control training to high school students.

• House Bill 1015 by Mayberry would require high schools to offer journalism classes.

Metro on 01/01/2019

Print Headline: School-choice bill could return in Legislature

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