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NWA editorial: It's all about choice, right?

Leave more state controls out of local school districts

Sometimes, the most precious words we can hear from the committee rooms of the state Legislature are "the no's have it."

That means a bill has failed, and with more than 2,000 proposed for members of the 91st General Assembly to consider during their regular session now in progress in Little Rock, it's often a very good outcome that a bill remains just a bill, whether it's killed in committee or winds up on the nay side of the voting in the main chambers.

What’s the point?

A proposal to give charter schools a right of first refusal on the lease or purchase of unused or underused public school facilities unnecessarily interferes in local school district decisions.

Last week, we welcomed the rejection in the House of Representatives of Senate Bill 308, a measure that would give any existing charter school a right -- a RIGHT! -- to acquire an unused or underutilized public school facility within the school district the charter school operates. The bill would have capped a lease or purchase of the public school facility "at no more than fair market value." It would have created a right of first refusal that could prevent a local school district from leasing or selling its property to anyone else for up to two years. And it would have created a bureaucratic barrier within state government designed to get in the way of local school boards doing what they believed to be in the best interests of the local school system and the broad audience of students and families it serves.

We get it. A lot of these proposals for bills affecting the entire state are really overreactions to specific circumstances that aren't necessarily the same statewide. In Little Rock, for example, where the traditional public schools and independent charter schools are in a contentious and strained relationship, it's entirely understandable that advocates for charter schools would like to tie the hands of the local school districts and force them to accommodate the strategic wishes of independent charter schools.

And, naturally, in some economically depressed areas of the state, a school district would welcome all comers who had an interest in buying an unused school facility. A deal to lift the burden of an underused or unused property from local taxpayers would no doubt be welcome no matter where it originated.

But consider Northwest Arkansas, one of Arkansas' most robust economic regions. If a local school district has a property it isn't using any more, there could be all sorts of opportunities to sell. An enterprising developer might turn a school facility into condos, for example. And he might be willing to pay more than what's considered "fair market value" for the opportunity if there are other suitors competing for the property.

It's not state government's role to dictate what the local school board should do. And while we appreciate the role of charter schools -- both within traditional school districts and the independent kind -- in the modern educational scheme, state lawmakers should not be in the habit of forcing local school districts to roll out a red carpet for the hopes and dreams of charter school advocates.

Here's a Republican-sounding idea: Let the free market reign. A local school board has a duty to its taxpayers and the students it serves to make the best decisions for the local school district. While that sometimes might be giving a charter school a chance to use the facility, it might other times be selling the property to the highest bidder.

We understand a good number of lawmakers salivate at the idea that charter schools are the 21st century solution to education, but in Northwest Arkansas, the traditional public schools are a fundamental part of success in teaching the children of our communities. Local school board members and district administrators don't need state lawmakers complicating their decisions and their strategies for success of the local school district.

We're often told the push for charter schools is all about choice. We think that ought to apply to local school boards and their decisions about how to operate their school districts, including the use or sale of property.

We commend the lawmakers who said "nay."

Commentary on 03/18/2017

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