A bill that would temporarily pause the issuing of letter grades to Arkansas’ public schools passed its final legislative hurdle on Thursday after a majority of the Arkansas Senate voted to pass it.
Due to the COVID-19 pandemic and its impact and disruption on education across the state, House Bill 1151 would suspend the current system that assigns letter grades to Arkansas’ public schools for the current school year. Such evaluations were also not issued during the previous school year.
By a vote of 29-3, with two Senators voting present, the bill passed the Senate and will now head to the governor as it had already passed in the House.
Sen. Jim Hendren, R-Gravette, who sponsored the original bill establishing the letter grade system in a previous session, spoke in favor of this latest action.
"If you’d told me five years ago that I’d be down here arguing that yeah we should take a pause in it, I would’ve said 'What in the world would cause that?' Because I believe strongly in the importance of these letter grades letting communities know which schools are failing and which schools are succeeding," Hendren said
He said some school districts have been harder hit by the pandemic than others, so it would be unfair to use the same grading criteria to assess them for this school year.
Sen. Stephanie Flowers, D-Pine Bluff, was the only Democrat to vote against the legislation. She expressed concern about how the pause in issuing grades would impact schools that are currently under state control.
"I don’t know if this means that the districts that are under state control, that the time, the five years limit by law that the state can control these districts because of failure to achieve or get beyond whatever got them under control in the first place is going to be extended," Flowers said.
Sen. Joyce Elliott, D-Little Rock, spoke in favor of the legislation, calling it a "common-sense" bill and said the state should not put a grade on schools "as if things are normal."
"These kids don’t deserve this. The community doesn’t deserve it. The teachers are really doing the best they can under circumstances that are not normal. Don’t try to act… as if the end product is normal," Elliott said.
Sen. Ricky Hill, R-Cabot, spoke against the legislation, saying as a former school board member he finds it an "insult" to not score the schools.
"I feel like our teachers and our superintendents and everyone, they’re professional people, they’ve been paid to do a job during this time, no different than our doctors and nurses have been," Hill said. "Thank goodness they kept working forward. The same with our educational system, they should be working forward, doing the best they can and I consider it an insult myself if we don’t score the schools."
The Senate also voted to pass House Bill 1195, called the “Every Mom Matters Act” which would require anyone seeking an abortion to first be put in contact with a “care agent” that would let them know of services available to them in an attempt to reduce the number of abortions in the state.
The bill does not ban the practice of abortions.
The Senate voted 28-5 to pass the bill, with Democrats making up all of the “no” votes. It also now goes to Gov. Asa Hutchinson.
Senate Committee Advances Election-Related Legislation
Later on Thursday, the Senate State Agencies and Governmental Affairs Committee advanced several bills concerning elections and failed to advance one bill that would ban the state’s Economic Development Commission from establishing or maintaining an office in China.
Senate Bill 188, passed by the committee, would make it so that any property used as a polling place, even a private one, would be subject to the same guidelines as every other polling place. That includes not restricting the handing out of campaign literature, soliciting signatures on a petition, displaying a candidate’s name and other actions within 100 feet of the primary exterior entrance of a building.
Sen. Alan Clark, R-Lonsdale, is the bills sponsor. Speaking to the committee, he said on Election Day, polling places should be just that and that it was especially important to continue to allow grassroots candidates and organizations to have access to voters.
"It’s rarely that I agree with the issues that people are gathering signatures for, but that’s one of the basic parts of our government is self-rule. And if we’re going to say that that’s the way people can change their government and then say 'But on Election Day, the main time you can find registered voters, you can’t get on the property where you vote to gather signatures,' we’re really doing away with grassroots government," Clark said.
No one opposed the bill in committee.
The Senate also passed House Bill 1202, which would require all Arkansas counties to publish sample ballots online at least 20 days before "each preferential primary and general election," and at least 10 days before any general primary, general runoff, school, or special election. There was no opposition to the bill and it passed by a voice vote. It now heads to the Senate where if passed, it would go to the Governor.
One bill the committee did not pass was Senate Bill 252, which would ban the state from establishing or maintaining an economic office in China.
Sen. Trent Garner, R-El Dorado, the bill’s sponsor, spoke on the bill, saying it would send a message on Arkansas’ stance towards China on issues such as the coronavirus pandemic as well as intellectual property theft.
"I understand the interest of the people here, trade is very important. As you know this won’t stop one cent from being traded to a major company," Garner said, "but it will sent a small but real message that when it comes to what we care about in Arkansas, we’ll stand up for Arkansas values: our ingenuity, our ability to grow, our ability to [do] good things, rather than to sell our future generations away."
Mike Preston, Secretary of the Arkansas Department of Commerce, was one of three to speak against the bill. He said this bill would not hurt China, but could affect Arkansas.
"It could lead to retaliation of Arkansas companies that do business in China. We do have 240 Arkansas companies that have a location and presence in China… as an export destination, and many more who are in the supply chain," Preston said.
While Sen. Jason Rapert, R-Conway, the committee’s chairman initially said the bill passed by a voice vote, a roll call vote held afterwards showed that the bill had actually failed. It could be brought up again in a future committee meeting.