Panel dismisses testing requirement for private schools receiving public funds

By: - February 14, 2023 4:25 pm
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The House Education Committee rejected a bill on Tuesday that would have required private schools receiving state funds to administer an annual statewide assessment test. 

A standardized exam mandate would allow parents to compare “apples to apples” when considering their child’s academic progress in public schools versus private, House Bill 1204 sponsor Jim Wooten (R-Beebe) said. 

“This bill is not intended to discourage them, this bill is intended to provide accountability from the private schools to the parents,” Wooten said.

Rep. Jim Wooten
Rep. Jim Wooten (Courtesy of the Arkansas House of Representatives)

The bill also would have required private schools that accept state funds to accept all applicants. Currently, private schools may select who they admit for enrollment while public schools must accept all students.

Wooten argued that public schools who accept transferring students under the governor’s proposed universal voucher plan would have to accommodate the growth, so private schools should be required to do the same.

State law provides protections for schools that hit their capacity limit, Rep. Stephen Meeks (R- Greenbrier) said, but HB 1204 does not include that same protection for private schools.

Rep. Vivian Flowers (D-Pine Bluff), who spoke in favor of the bill, said the capacity issue could be fixed with an amendment.

Meeks also said that while he understands the desire for accountability, parents choose to send their child to private school and regardless of test results, “parents are going to be the ultimate guard of whether that school is meeting the need of that child or not.” 

Therefore testing is superfluous, he said.

Not here to criticize private schools

Rep. Rick Beck (R-Center Ridge) agreed that officials should ensure students are being educated if state funds are involved; however, he questioned whether the bill would require private schools that are already testing to administer another test. Wooten said that would be their choice. 

Wooten also noted that private schools do not have to accept state money and this bill would only apply to those that do.

“I’m not here to criticize private schools, contrary to many thought processes,” Wooten said. “But I do think that we need the accountability, and that’s all I’m asking for.” 

Accountability has become a major topic of discussion because more state funds are expected to be available for private schools through the governor’s proposed Education Freedom Account. The program, which will be phased in from “at-risk” families in the first year to all Arkansans in three years, will provide state funding for parents to enroll their children in public, private or parochial schools or homeschool.

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Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders announced the program as part of her education plan for the state last week. Legislation has not yet been filed.

Current and former superintendents of rural school districts have expressed concern that private schools are not held to the same standards as public schools, which are required to administer assessment tests and provide transportation.

Wooten addresses the latter concern in HB 1205, which would require schools that accept state funding to provide transportation. It’s scheduled to be heard in committee on Thursday. 

Wooten said Tuesday that a bill to address accountability within homeschools is also forthcoming.

Offer something different

Families often choose private schools because they offer a different method of instruction, but requiring them to use the same testing as public schools means they’ll have to adjust their curriculum to align with public schools, Rep. Grant Hodges (R-Rogers) said. 

“So you’re really taking away the whole reason for a lot of private schools to exist in that they do offer something different, and really just trying to turn private schools into public schools,” Hodges said, saying he intended to vote against HB 1204.

Rep. Vivian Flowers
Rep. Vivian Flowers (Courtesy of the Arkansas House of Representatives)

Regardless of whether a student receives a public or private education, there’s a standard of accountability for college admission in the form of the ACT or SAT, Flowers said.  

Several legislators discussed how standardized testing may not be the best way to measure students’ progress. Regardless of its merits, that testing system is currently being used to grade schools who are then taken over by the state when they don’t meet a certain standard, Flowers said.

“We’ve had no problem closing schools in the very communities [where] we say kids are at risk and we want to open up,” she said. “ If we’re going to open up choice, let’s make sure that there’s accountability.”

The discussion of education reform in Arkansas should not be limited to private schools, Flowers said.

“If we’re going to talk about reform and making all of our schools better and competitive, let’s make sure that we are treating our public schools with the same level of consideration and vigor about change and resources that we are concerned about [regarding] the protection of the private schools that would benefit from state dollars,” she said.

Equity between schools, including accountability of state funds, is important in preventing future litigation, Rep. Denise Garner (D-Fayetteville) said.

“When we take public funds and put them into a program that we have no idea what they’re doing because there’s no accountability for private schools or parochial schools or homeschools, I think we are opening ourselves up to another Lake View,” Garner said.

The landmark court case, Lake View School District No. 25 v. Huckabee, was a 15-year process that resulted in Arkansas lawmakers reviewing the adequacy of education spending every two years. The case began in 1992 when the now defunct Lake View school district claimed the state’s funding system for public schools was unconstitutional because it was inequitable and inadequate.

HB 1204 failed on a roll call vote. The committee’s only Democrats, Garner and Flowers, both voted in favor of the bill. They were joined by Republicans Rep. Ron McNair (R-Harrison) and Rep. Steven Walker (R-Horseshoe Bend).


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Antoinette Grajeda
Antoinette Grajeda

Antoinette Grajeda is a multimedia journalist who has reported since 2007 on a wide range of topics, including politics, health, education, immigration and the arts for NPR affiliates, print publications and digital platforms. A University of Arkansas alumna, she earned a bachelor’s degree in print journalism and a master’s degree in documentary film.