The House Wednesday
Thursday failed by one contested vote to pass SB 308 to force public school districts to sell or lease vacant school buildings to charter schools. It will likely get another vote and enjoys powerful backing.
The bill passed 51-32, with 9 present, on the initial roll call. But a motion to sound the ballot — a procedure to call each name to insure all the voters were in their seats — found one of the aye votes missing, reducing the vote 50. The bill was declared defeated. A motion to clinch the defeat, which would have prevented reconsideration, failed. Rep. Mary Bentley wasn’t in her seat when the roll was called, but I don’t believe that was intentional. She returned to the chamber moments later.
Here’s the roll call on the bill.
Rep. Stephen Meeks then moved to expunge the vote so the bill could be considered again. The motion to expunge requires 67 votes. The motion failed on a 59-23 vote. But the bill may be reconsidered again, on a motion that requires only a simple majority vote. Each bill can be considered twice. If expunged, the vote doesn’t count against the bill.
The House acted after an impassioned speech against the bill by Rep. John Walker of Little Rock, who noted the number of small districts in the state, no longer in existence, where empty school buildings could be taken over by charter schools.
“If a charter school can be operated for 150 or 200 students, so should the public schools,” Walker said. He talked of communities like Elaine, Altheimer, Stephens and others that had lost schools where charters could now step in.
Rep. Mark Lowery objected to those arguments because those districts no longer exist. He also repeated the argument that charter schools are public schools. They are publicly financed. But they are typically operated by private corporations and voters have no oversight of their operation.
Walker made more than a glancing reference to the Little Rock School District, now under state control and thus the control of Education Commissioner Johnny Key, who’s just approved closure of three schools to save money. That will vacate at least two schools that the district could be forced to sell or lease to charter schools if the district can’t prove an educational use for them.
Charter schools should not be given the opportunity to “kill our cities,” Walker said. “If the districts don’t want to give them away, they shouldn’t be taken away from you by a superintendent of education who can be superintendent of every district he wants to be by attaching a label of academic or fiscal or facility distress.”
Asked Walker: “What is the benefit to our people?”
Lowery argued that vacant buildings can deteriorate and damage a community. He didn’t address the question of why a charter school that drains students from a school district should be given a building in good condition that Johnny Key has forced to be closed.
This was a rare bill that didn’t split strictly on party lines. The legislation, though it has obvious implications for Little Rock, could apply in any school district in Arkansas and the consolidation movement of recent years, though now out of favor, has created many situations where many communities would like to operate a charter in vacated buildings. That has implications for lost students and state support for many districts.
The Walton-financed charter/voucher school lobby backs this bill and is opposing other bills aimed at cleaning up the charter school process. For example, one bill would allow charter schools to have a weighted lottery for admission. In past years, charter schools explained away populations that were whiter and richer than surrounding school districts by saying this was a result of a pure lottery. A weighted lottery, with preference for poor and minority students, could change that. But Walton-paid lobbyists have made it clear they’ll accept no changes in charter law, except those such as this bill that help them.