Legislator knows best: Education edition

It should not come as a surprise, but Arkansas' public education system isn't exactly ranked among the best in the country. In fact, the state's overall ranking dropped again this year, from 41st in the nation to 43rd, according to Education Week's annual Quality Counts report.

That's not great. And in a place where the public education rankings are consistently abysmal, you would think the state's legislature would be working diligently to give these struggling public schools the necessary tools and resources needed to improve. You would think that public education would at least be on their radar.

But it's not.

During the current session, the Arkansas Legislature has instead worked rather diligently to funnel money and resources away from the public school system and into the hands of private and charter schools. And they're not even being subtle about it.

I've written about charter schools before. They may be great in theory. Under the right circumstances, they can provide disadvantaged children with greater access to opportunities. And many do. But even more don't.

In practice, charter schools lack serious oversight for institutions that receive public funding. That lack of oversight has resulted in many closed doors and even more broken promises to children and parents. In a previous column, I cited reports showing hundreds of charter schools that had closed down in states across the country, some months, even weeks, after they had opened.

In Florida, one charter school was closed after it was found to operate an illegal night club out of its cafeteria. Another was closed because the "school" didn't even have a physical location. Dozens more were busted for lying about attendance to secure additional tax dollars. In Ohio, the state's auditor found that charter schools were four times more likely to misspend public funds than any other government agency.

I think you get the point.

So far this session, the Arkansas Legislature has passed a bill that would require public school districts to sell or lease vacant or "underutilized" school buildings to charter schools for at least two years. The idiotic bill is already headed to the Governor's desk.

In essence, the bill would rip control over a piece of property from a school district, and give it a charter school. The bill gives charter schools an enormous advantage over a public school. If leased, terms would be determined by the charter school, meaning a district could be locked up in a bad lease for years. If sold, the district could potentially receive much less than the market value for a property deemed "underutilized" by the state.

If a legislator tells you the bill only gives charter schools the opportunity to purchase an unused public school building, and doesn’t impose restrictions, they’re lying. Charter schools already have the right of first refusal. This bill, which will soon be law, quite literally forces this decision on public school districts for at least two years after a building is deemed underutilized.

And if they don't comply, a public school district would run the risk of being placed on fiscal distress. A distressed classification would enable the state to take the district over. So, by approving this bill, the Legislature has told public school administrators to hand over their underused properties to institutions with no oversight or expect to lose their jobs. What sense does that make? It’s definitely not good sense.

Resources, like buildings and property, are one thing. At least the Legislature isn't trying to funnel precious funding away from public schools. Right? Well, they're trying to do that, too.

In a bill that came before the House on Thursday, members of the Arkansas Legislature are trying to funnel millions in tax dollars to charter and private schools. It’s a voucher bill.

Vouchers, like charter schools, are admirable in theory. They provide students who may otherwise be unable to afford a quality private school the opportunity to broaden their horizons without having to pay tuition.

But there are many critics of vouchers, especially the one dancing around the House now. Those in opposition to such a program, at its most basic level, would argue that vouchers take away critical funds from public schools. They’re mostly right. But the bill in the Arkansas Legislature would take it one step further. It would launder tax dollars for private schools with absolutely no oversight whatsoever.

Under the proposed plan, “education savings accounts” would be established using funds donated by wealthy Arkansans in exchange for significant tax write-offs. The “accounts” are actually tax-free, nonprofit organizations that will have the authority to decide what private schools receive those funds.

The beauty of this middle man to those who support it is that there is literally no government oversight of these organizations. Unlike in a straight voucher program, where the money would come directly from the government, these “savings accounts” will be shrouded in the veil of privacy that extends to any other tax-free nonprofit. There will be no way of even determining which schools receive funds.

The initial proposal was for $6.5 million to be funneled into the program, annually. It was scaled down to $3 million a year. Regardless, it still takes millions away from a public school system that is evidently struggling.

According to Citizens First Congress, the state’s Pre-K is underfunded by approximately $20 million. The Special Education task force has recommended at least $20 million to provide the bare minimum in adequacy for children with special needs. They were told the state can’t afford it. Instead of placing tax dollars where they are so desperately needed, members of the Arkansas Legislature have decided that it is more important to give that money to unknown private schools without even the slightest amount of oversight.

Update:  Thankfully, the bill failed in the House on Thursday. The vote was 37 to 47, with 12 not voting and four “present.” Supporters of the bill have fussed that those who didn’t vote were intimidated by superintendents and school officials. Had they instead had the courage to actually vote against the bill, it could have put an end to it. Instead, there’s a good chance it could come back up for another vote.

If I’ve learned anything in covering the Legislature, it’s that you can’t keep a bad bill down.

Regardless, the message is already loud and clear. Rather than to create a level playing field, the Arkansas Legislature wants to tilt the scales wherever they can. As the public school system drowns, state lawmakers start reeling in the life saver.

(EDITOR’S NOTE: Caleb Talley is a member of the Times-Herald news staff. He may be contacted at 870-633-3130 or by email at newsroom@thnews.com.)