LITTLE ROCK — The Senate Education Committee on Wednesday endorsed a proposed new school choice law that would remove race as a factor in school transfers, with the sponsor’s commitment to more changes later.
Sen. Johnny Key, R-Mountain Home, said he would offer amendments to Senate Bill 65 later in the House to place a yearly cap on the number of transfers and to let the measure expire in two years so lawmakers can look at the results and make changes if necessary.
The committee sent SB 65 to the Senate unchanged after Key said he felt it was crucial to move the bill quickly to the House education panel, where members have expressed reservations about passing any school choice law before a federal circuit court rules on a district judge’s decision last year that struck down Arkansas 25-year-old school choice law.
Key outlined the changes he would make in the House if the full Senate approves the bill.
He said he would amend the bill to cap transfers at 3 percent annually and include a July 1, 2015, expiration date. Other changes he committed to would require the Department of Education to collect transfer data and to report to the education committee; would restrict transfers from districts currently under desegregation orders; and would specify that all transfers approved prior to enactment of the proposed new law would be exempt from it.
Last year, U.S. District Judge Robert T. 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 U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in St. Louis, which heard oral augments in January.
Earlier this month, the House Education Committee rejected a school choice proposal by Rep. Kim Hammer, R-Benton, House Bill 1507, after several committee members indicated they wanted to wait until the federal appeals court ruling.
Key told the Senate education panel Wednesday his proposal allows lawmakers to return in two years to reconsider the law in light of the federal appeals court ruling.
"Everyone is not going to be happy with this bill," Key said, adding that his proposal to amend it in the House was "unorthodox … but this bill has presented some unorthodox challenges."
Sen. Joyce Elliot, D-Little Rock, sponsor of Senate Bill 114, which would keep racial desegregation as a goal, but not a mandate, and would allow school districts to opt out of school choice if they believe it would result in re-segregation, said she supports Key’s proposal.
"I think it’s a thoughtful way of approaching it," Elliott said.