The House rejected a bill by Rep. Clarke Tucker (D-Little Rock) that would apply the Freedom of Information Act to third-party entities who contract to provide consulting, evaluation or operation of a school following state takeover of a school district. The vote was 38-32, with about a third of the chamber not voting.
HB 1605 is a good bill. It’s in answer to the State Board of Education’s takeover of the Little Rock School District, but it applies more generally to any district in the state. In addition to greater transparency, it also requires the state provide information about state takeover of a district to all legislators who represent the area in which the district is located.
Tucker said that existing case law already indicates the FOIA should apply to such records, but that it should be codified in statute to provide clarity and to ensure that the public is not entirely disenfranchised when the state dissolves a locally elected school board.
“If a public entity hires a private entity to do public work, the Supreme Court of Arkansas has interpreted the FOIA to say … those activities are [covered by the FOIA] … because that private entity is doing public work, and the public has a right to know about it,” Tucker said. He said his bill was narrowly tailored to only apply to the extraordinary situation of state takeover of a district, not other sorts of contracts that districts might enter into.
After the state board took over the LRSD in January, many began looking closely at ForwardAR, the partnership between the Walton Family Foundation and the Winthrop Rockefeller Foundation to create a strategic plan for Arkansas public education in contract with the state’s Education Department. Because the Walton Foundation has supported efforts elsewhere to turn over public schools to private charter management organizations, ForwardAR’s involvement with the state was received with much suspicion by advocates of the LRSD — especially when it was announced ForwardAR would contract with the Boston Consulting Group, an organization that’s recommended privatization of public schools in Memphis, Philadelphia and elsewhere.
And then came HB 1733, the bill that would allow the state to contract with outside nonprofit organizations to actually run districts taken over by the state — that is, to turn over the LRSD to charter management organizations wholesale. That bill was eventually pulled by its sponsor in the face of organized opposition, but it seems likely the push for privatization will continue in the future.
The Democrat-Gazette reported yesterday that the bill passed the committee on a roll call vote with three Republican representatives voting against it.