SUBSTITUTE MOTION: Sen. Joyce Elliott came up with winning proposal.

The Legislative Council today overcame roadblocks from a subcommittee and approved a $659,000 contract with a consulting firm to assess the adequacy of state funding of public schools.

Conservatives in the Senate had blocked the proposal despite approval from House and Senate Education Committees. They believe, with some reason, that a study could lead to a conclusion that the state isn’t complying with the Lakeview decision requiring equal and adequate public education. The Bureau of Legislative Research assesses adequacy for every legislative session, but the legislature often adopts spending below recommended levels and there are questions about how well the support that’s being provided is used in helping students who need help most. An outside assessment hasn’t been performed in 16 years.

Wednesday, a tie vote on the Senate side of the Legislative Council’s policy committee killed for a second time the consultants’ study approved by the Education Committees. It called for hiring Augenblick, Palaich and Associates.

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Conservatives wanted at one point to hire a startup consulting firm, Shuls and Associates, headed by school “choice” advocates in the belief they’d recommend changes that would cost less, perhaps even save money. A committee at one point approved two studies, one by each consultant group.

Today, Rep. Bruce Cozart revived that idea and called for approval of contracts with both Augenblick and Shuls. The rules allowed reconsideration of the policy committee decision on a majority vote of the quorum.

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Sen. Larry Teague asked how much additional money approving two consultants would cost. About $500,000, Cozart said.

Sen. Joyce Elliott then offered a substitute motion to hire only Augenblick. She emphasized it was endorsed by the Education committees, which spent “hours and hours” on the subject. She said deference should be given to people who’ve done the work. Sen. Linda Chesterfield asked for immediate consideration, cutting off debate.

Elliott’s motion was approved on roll call votes of both the Senate and House members of the Council, though the vote was deeply split on the Senate side, where most resistance had arisen.

In other business, the Council approved a contract by the state to use beds at a planned regional jail to be built and operated for Bradley and Drew Counties by LaSalle Corrections, a private company from Louisiana, for up to 500 state prisoners. Approval followed extensive questioning by Sens. Will Bond and Elliott, both opponents of privatizing prisons. The state will pay $8 million a year for 20 years. Bond drew out that bidding was waived by the counties. Rep. Fredrick Love of Little Rock noted LaSalle will get a higher rate for housing prisoners than other counties get for holding state prisoners, $40 a day vs. $30. A state prison spokesman said the regional jail would meet higher standards than county jails.

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