From the Arkansas Statehouse...

No sympathy for Weiner, homeschoolers.

In Education on 8 April 2009 at 2:09 pm

Turrell, Delight and Weiner — these are some of the school districts in danger of elimination after the Senate Education Committee rejected a bill that would change the formula the state uses to calculate sufficient attendance.

The bill was sponsored by Rep. Buddy Lovell, Democrat of Marked Tree, in an effort to save the Weiner district. The state forces consolidation of any district that has attendance of less than 350 for two consecutive years, but it only counts attendance during the first three quarters of the year. Rep. Lovell wants the fourth quarter counted as well; Weiner’s population increases during that period due to temporary agricultural employment, and including the fourth quarter might have stalled imminent consolidation of the district. Supporters testified that closing the district will turn Weiner into a ghost town.

Rep. Lovell fought hard for the bill, and even went so far as to hold up the statewide education budget for several days. But the Governor and the Attorney General remained staunchly opposed to tinkering with the attendance formula, which was established after a long court fight over school funding.

Homeschool advocates fared little better this morning, as the committee declined to approve the so-called Tim Tebow bill, Sen. Gilbert Baker’s effort to allow homeschooled children to participate in extracurricular activities and competitive sports teams run by their local districts.

The committee seemed open to Sen. Baker’s proposal, but it was introduced too late in the session for passage by the full legislature. A voice vote did not garner enough ayes. The bill was sent to interim study.

Some committee members wondered if the bill’s academic standards were too low. Public school students must maintain a certain GPA to participate in activites; homeschoolers would have to achieve above the 35th percentile on a standardized test.

Bill to tighten restrictions on poor-school spending fails.

In Education on 7 April 2009 at 3:37 pm

An attempt to make poor school districts stop stockpiling National School Lunch Act (NSLA) money failed in the House Education Committee today. The bill would require the approval of the Department of Education if a district wished to carry over to the next year more than 20 percent of the money. The bill’s sponsor, Sen. Joyce Elliott, had previously secured its passage in the Senate.

Despite its name, the NSLA is used to pay for several specifically approved programs, including after-school activities, tutoring and salary increases for teachers. The NSLA fund is one of several so-called categorical education funds, which the state earmarks for express purposes.

There has been some dispute over whether NSLA funds should be spent on teacher salaries and bonuses. It was suggested today that districts were saving the funds to pay for bonuses at a later date.

Rep. David Rainey, who sponsored the bill in the House, said there needs to be greater Department of Education supervision of the amount districts carry over. The bill would require the Department to establish rules determining when a district could keep an excess of the money. Rep. Rainey said those rules should not let a district exceed the 20 percent limit unless it shows an improvement in student performance.

Rep. Rainey argued that the NSLA money was not being used properly. “From my perspective, it’s unacceptable for these districts to receive the money and not spend it on its intended purpose,” he told the committee.

According to Arkansas Advocates for Children and Families, which testified for the bill, 15 districts carried over more than 60 percent of their NSLA funding in the 2007-2008 school year.

Ron Harder of the Arkansas School Boards Association spoke against the bill.  He argued that the amount of money being carried over has flattened in recent years. He also said that a district the Education Department found to be in breach of the 20-percent threshold would be put in a budget bind due to the likely timing of such a ruling.

The bill, which failed on a voice vote, suffered due to its breadth. Though misuse of NSLA funding was the main issue, the bill would require the 20 percent cap for all categorical funds, a provision to which Harder objected. Though the sponsors were willing to tighten the bill’s scope, there is not enough time left in the session for an amendment.

No tax break for you!

In Taxes on 6 April 2009 at 6:06 pm

Arkansans don’t like to be taxed, and they really like to get tax breaks. But the line has to be drawn somewhere. The Senate Taxation Committee drew it by rejecting every single tax exemption that came before it today. There was a flood of them after the House went on a tax-break binge last week, much to the consternation of Gov. Beebe.

Here’s a breakdown of the bad breaks:

-An exemption for single-parents who have two or more dependents and make less than $17,200 a year. The best of the tax bills, the sponsors said it corrected an oversight from previous sessions. Sort of baffling this one didn’t get through considering how much support it had. Revenue loss was said to be $3.6 million.

-A credit for someone who sells a motor home to the person who is renting the motor home. Supporters of this one said it would encourage home ownership. We know what sort of trouble that attitude has gotten the country into recently. Besides which, living in a trailer isn’t exactly what I’d call the American Dream.

-A back-to-school sales-tax holiday. $1.6 million revenue loss was too much for DFA. This one inspired a lecture from Sen. Denny Altes on the Laffer Curve.

-A tax credit for the development of central business improvement districts. Rep. Tracy Pennartz, the sponsor, said the credit would pay off five-t0-one, though she did not say where her numbers came from. This bill was long in development and had a certain amount of support. But, though Rep. Pennartz offered a last-minute amendment that would eliminate the credit if funding couldn’t be found outside general revenues, DFA objected. It said the credit would create an expectation from business districts that the state might not be able to meet. Still, the bill got a sympathetic hearing and will go to interim study.

A capital-gains tax exemption. Sponsor Rep. Ed Garner and DFA sparred over how much the impact would be, but it looks to be huge. Garner said the break was necessary to enlarge the economy; DFA said it would help mainly individuals, not businesses, and take $42.8 million from the state in 2011. Seems to me that exempting people from stock and real estate profits isn’t the best economic catalyst.

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