After sharp debate, the Senate Education Committee this morning failed on a split vote to approve SB 668 that would allow the state Board of Education to retain control of the Little Rock School District for up to four more years on top of five years of receivership that ends in January.

Needing five votes, it got three — Sens. Jane English, Jim Hendren and Mark Johnson, all Republicans. Sens. Linda Chesterfield, Joyce Elliott and Eddie Cheatham, all Democrats, voted no. Sen. James Sturch, a Republican, who had earlier asked for a delay to hear from the Education Department on legal questions, didn’t vote. Also not voting was Republican Sen. Lance Eads.

The bill, sponsored by Sen. Kim Hammer (R-Benton), was presented by Sen. Mark Johnson (R-Little Rock) who lives outside the Little Rock School District n rural Pulaski County. And it was supported, in a surprise to Little Rock senators, by Jeff Wood, appointed to the Little Rock School District Community Advisory Board by Education Commissioner Johnny Key. He’s a lawyer and former aide to Republican Gov. Mike Huckabee. The board has little legal function, but serves as window dressing for the state takeover. Wood is currently its chair.

The bill would allow an extension of state control in two successive-two year periods.  In other words, carried to its limit, it could prevent a reinstitution of local control until an election late in 2024, almost 10 years after the takeover. It would apply to any school district in Level 5 academic distress, but, as became clear, it’s directed at Little Rock.

Wood said progress was being made, but not enough and it developed that he was a prime mover behind this bill. He referenced recent findings on shortcomings in reading programs. He said he wanted changes to “take root” before the district is returned to local control. He said local control had not worked before the takeover.

Sens. Joyce Elliott and Linda Chesterfield, both Little Rock Democrats, reacted sharply, even angrily to Wood and Johnson.  Elliott was particularly angry that Wood didn’t emerge as a key advocate for this bill until today. Hammer had told Elliott, she said, that the bill arose from his “thinking.”

Chesterfield challenged Wood to tell her people in the eastern part of the city who supported the bill. He named none, but said there were some. And he said he stayed up at night worrying about all the children in the district. And he insisted he wanted the return of local control.

Elliott said the bill illustrated attitudes toward a bill she’d just had defeated, an effort to establish a commission to study past racial injustices in Arkansas. “Why is it some people feel just fine being under the big foot of government? You’ve never felt it the way I’ve felt it.”

Education Commissioner Johnny Key said the department was “neutral” on the bill, in part because of legal questions on some provisions. But he noted the department had once supported a seven-year takeover period, which was shortened to five by the legislature. “What we recommend will be based on the data,” he said.

Johnson said “a little more time [for state control] would be helpful.”

But Elliott said the bill would change the rules in the first year under rules on academic performance enacted following 2017 legislation that included a change to a new standardized test. It permits annexation, reconstitution or consolidation of a district if deficiencies aren’t corrected after five years.  “When do we stop moving the needle?” she asked.

Key declined to “speculate” on how Little Rock would fare after the department re-grades Little Rock schools next fall following spring administration of a standardized test. Some eight schools are judged as failing now, where six were judged that way under different standards when the state Board narrowly voted in January 2015 to dismiss the school board and take over the district. Student progress is considered now in school grades, but the biggest influence is still a sufficient proficiency scores. Schools with high percentages of poor and minority students — in Little Rock and statewide — disproportionately fall short.

Elliott asked, “At what point do we look at Earle, Pine Bluff, Dollarway, Marvel, Little Rock and Pulaski County and not see what that pattern is?”

Under questioning by Chesterfield, Wood said he spoke for himself, not the advisory board. He acknowledged that “statistically,” it was hard to demonstrate progress under state control, but he said various changes, including in institution of a science of reading program, were “strong indicators that success is right around the corner.”

Chesterfield scoffed at the notion that extended control would be popular. “Taxation without representation is a fundamental concern of people I represent,” she said. “We are paying money and we don’t have a voice in anything to do with our children.”:

Elliott criticized Wood for having a “real comfort level with representation far removed from the people we serve. …. Why do you feel comfortable and we don’t?” The suggestion, in her reference to earlier legislation on racial injustice, was that race was part of the answer.

Repealing and extending 2017 legislation “is not going to hurt you and not going to bother you,” she told Wood. “The schools in West Little Rock are going to be just fine.” If there were more open conversations, she said,  “.You would not know what this feels like to black people in this city.” She said she didn’t blame Wood for not knowing, “but I do blame you for not trying.”

The debate is on video at the end of this committee session, beginning at 12:09.

Chesterfield spoke at length about the inability of parents to participate in local control. “You ought to have a voice in the decisions being made about your kids.”

Elliott protested the bill coming out of the blue from Wood, in an “opaque” fashion.