The Arkansas House today took another vote on the bill to force public school districts to sell vacant buildings to charter schools and today it passed 53-32.
The vote followed a pitched debate on whether the bill should be reconsidered, a motion that passed 59-27. Rep. John Walker objected to “another bite at the apple” for the bill. It was a bad bill yesterday and a bad bill today, he said.
The arguments against reconsideration went into merits, with opponents speaking in detail about how the bill created an unequal playing field for charters versus public school districts. Rep. Clarke Tucker said the debate on choice was one thing, but if there is to be choice it should be fair. He noted that schools may be forced to sell buildings at less than market value, that they can be forced into leases of up to 30 years without negotiating ability, and that buildings can be tied up for two years by a charter school.
Though charter schools get first refusal on vacant buildings, should such a building become available because the charter no longer wants it, the public district wouldn’t have first call to get it back — another charter school would. Also, Tucker noted, “that’s actually only for buildings that were originally owned and operated by a public school.”
Rep. Charles Blake disputed Rep. Mark Lowery’s contention that the bill only affects districts with charter schools. Blake noted that number is growing, with some 16 more charters, including 10 in Little Rock and Pine Bluff, proposed for coming school years. He warned members that the expansion of charters into other districts around the state was a “slippery slope.”
Rep. Vivian Flowers of Pine Bluff also objected to unfair terms in making the buildings available. Should a school district resist, a district can be put in fiscal distress by the state Board of Education and its negotiating power taken away completely. Flowers also noted that charter schools are public only in that they receive public money, but have little of the accountability and transparency of conventional public school districts.
Tucker noted that this is but one of a number of bills aimed at tilting the playing field in favor of charter schools. He has some legislation of his own aimed at providing some equity, but given votes such as this, it would appear to be an uphill struggle.
The bill passed with 51 votes on an initial roll call yesterday, but Rep. Mary Bentley wasn’t in her seat when the ballot was sounded to confirm the ayes and the bill was ruled defeated.
House approval completes action on the bill, which goes to the governor.
UPDATE: See more from the Arkansas Nonprofit News Network here.