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House member pulls proposal to change control of academically distressed school districts


LITTLE ROCK, Arkansas — An Arkansas lawmaker who sponsored a bill to assist failing school districts said he pulled the proposal on Tuesday less than an hour before hundreds of opponents descended on the Capitol to protest it.

Republican Rep. Bruce Cozart told The Associated Press that he has deferred the bill and that it won't come up again this session. He said he received more than 3,000 emails and countless calls about the proposal that opponents branded as a push to privatize education in the state.

The bill would have allowed private nonprofits to take over districts that the State Board of Education deemed academically distressed. Cozart and supporters said it would provide a new way to help students in poor performing schools. Hutchinson said the proposal could provide a valuable tool to help children.

Cozart said he couldn't get the cooperation needed from proponents and opponents to advance the proposal despite a high-profile endorsement by Republican Gov. Asa Hutchinson last week. The bill had stalled in the House Education Committee, which is split evenly between Democrats and Republicans.

"I wasn't trying to hurt teachers or do anything against schools ... that was not my intention," Cozart said. "My intention was to trying to help failing schools in academic distress."

Cozart said his bill was too broad, and that he had concerns about it when he filed it. He said he wanted to help children in underserved areas but couldn't get enough input from proponents about how the move would help them.

"Nobody would tell me it's about the kids; it was all about teachers," Cozart said. "We've got to start thinking about our kids."

The overhaul was opposed by a broad coalition of education groups that opposed dissolving elected school boards and worried that it could lead to privatization of schools statewide. The Arkansas Education Association, The Little Rock Education Association, The Arkansas Citizens First Congress and others held the meeting Wednesday evening on the Capitol steps despite Cozart's announcement and a sprinkling of rain. About 300 teachers, children, parents and community members gathered for what speakers referred to as a "victory party."

"I'm really excited that our message that privatization is a failed strategy got through," said Bill Kopsky, executive director of The Arkansas Citizens First Congress, a nonpartisan coalition that lobbies a broad range of topics. "This is bad for public education, bad for kids and has failed to show results every other place it has been tried."

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