LITTLE ROCK, Ark. (AP) — An Arkansas House panel rejected a proposal Tuesday that would have allowed school districts whose low student populations put them in danger of consolidation to bolster their enrollment numbers by counting home-schooled students.
The rejection by a bipartisan majority of lawmakers on the committee could have the most immediate impact in rural districts where officials concerned about student population numbers that hover near 350 — the threshold for consolidation — were hoping to bolster their numbers by counting home-schooled students.
Supporters of the bill argued rural school districts need greater flexibility around a state law that requires a district to enroll at least 350 students each year or be subject to consolidation with another district. The measure would have changed the way school districts calculate their student population, allowing them to include students who live in the district but are home-schooled.
"The goal of it was to save these rural schools that are getting close to 350," said Rep. James Ratliff, D-Imboden, who sponsored the legislation.
Opponents of the measure, which included the state Department of Education and the Attorney General's office, told the House Education Committee Tuesday that allowing school districts to have fewer than 350 students would create funding challenges and could expose the state to lawsuits about the adequacy of education.
Lawmakers on the panel heard from the leaders of two small school districts whose student populations are close to 350.
Greg Crabtree, superintendent of the Hillcrest School District in northeast Arkansas, said that his school district currently has 371 students and 39 home-schooled students. Having already been through two consolidations, Crabtree said he was concerned about the impact that another consolidation would have on students in his district who are already traveling up to two and half hours each day to attend school.
Three school districts in the state had fewer than 350 students at the end of the last school year, according to Phyllis Stewart, chief of staff at the Arkansas Department of Education.
One of those districts, the Lead Hill School District in northern Arkansas, climbed its way out from under the threat of consolidation this year after making a concerted effort to attract new students, according to the superintendent John Davidson.
Davidson said in a phone interview that while his school district worked within the existing rules about the 350-student threshold — buying iPads for students, adding an archery course and recruiting 17 foreign exchange students — he sympathized with the need for rural schools to have more leeway in meeting the standard.
"When you go by numbers, there needs to be ways to provide flexibility," he said "I think we lose sight of the fact that adequacy doesn't have to be solely based on numbers."
But opponents of the bill argued at the hearing Tuesday that allowing school districts to have fewer than 350 students for whom the state provides funding — about $6,200 per student — would undermine the quality of education in the district.
"You're counting students who don't bring any resources into the school district to cover what goes on in the classroom and allowing the funding level to drop below what the General Assembly has determined to be adequate," said Assistant Attorney General Scott Richardson.
Lowering the consolidation threshold without providing additional resources to a district, he said, would leave the state open to a legal challenge that it is not providing constitutionally adequate education.
Similar proposals to change the 350-student threshold for school districts, or how the state calculates it, have failed to pass in previous legislative sessions.
Ratliff says he isn't sure whether he will be filing other legislation on the issue this session.
"Right now I'm just brainstorming," he said. "I'm trying to figure out other routes to keep these rural schools from consolidating."