LITTLE ROCK – School officials are still hammering out the details of a new law that grants charter schools a right of access if they want to purchase facilities that are unused or under-utilized by the local school district.
A specific source of disagreement is the definition of “under-utilized.” School district officials expressed concern that buildings used for storage could be categorized as under-utilized if they were not full throughout the year.
One school official questioned how many events had to occur at a school auditorium to prevent it from being categorized as underutilized. The proposed rules were clarified to ensure that an auditorium continues to serve its purpose even if it used only a few times a semester.
The law is Act 542 of 2017. It clarifies the right of first refusal of charter schools wishing to buy or lease unused or under-utilized school district property. Its passage was opposed by some educators who had concerns about the impact it would have on local public schools.
In the Senate the bill passed by a vote of 25-to-4, with six senators not voting. In the House, the bill failed the first time it was voted on, but its sponsors eventually won sufficient support for it to pass by a vote of 53-to-32.
As with most new laws, passage of the bill did not officially complete the process. The next step was for officials in the state Education Department, at the Division of Public School Academic Facilities and Transportation, to put the law’s provisions into a new set of rules.
Last week the Commission that oversees the division voted to add some new language to the proposed rules. Next there will be a period of public comment on the changes.
It will be the third public comment period on implementation of Act 542.
During the first public comment period, the superintendent of a small, rural district said the rules should allow for reciprocal treatment of charter school property and equipment.
He suggested that the rules should allow traditional schools to use charter school facilities if they are under-utilized. His suggestion was not put into the rules.
A legislative sponsor of Act 542 voiced concerns that during the drafting of the rules, legislators were not contacted to ask them their intent when they filed the bill.
The difficulty in finalizing the rules reflects how strongly people these days feel about public education, and how administrators should accommodate parents’ wishes for expanded school choice.
Just as rapid developments in technology are changing the workplace, they also are driving much of the debate on charter schools, because some charters rely heavily on innovative techniques.
Officials of traditional school districts point out that they cannot choose their students. They must educate children with special needs, children from low-income families and children who do not speak English as their native language.
Some areas of Arkansas have few if any charter schools, but Act 1066 of 2017 outlines how parents can transfer their children to school districts other than the one in which they live.
Charter schools are public schools, but they are not held to the same set of regulations with which traditional schools must comply.
In exchange for being allowed to experiment with innovative teaching methods, they must sign a charter, which is basically a performance contract, with the state Education Department.