Bill to allow vouchers for foster children clears Senate committee

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Brian Chilson

Sen. Joyce Elliott

A bill that would expand a special-needs education voucher program to include foster children passed on a voice vote with some dissent in the Senate Education Committee Wednesday.

Legislation enacted in 2015 established the Succeed Scholarship, a voucher program that uses public tax dollars to pay for students with special needs to attend private schools. The student must have an Individualized Education Program, an education plan for children with disabilities in accordance with federal law. In order to participate in the scholarship, parents are required to waive their child’s federal civil rights protections under the United States' Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.

House Bill 1567 would make foster children living in group homes eligible for a scholarship. In a departure from the original intent of the voucher program, the children would not need to have an Individualized Education Program to qualify. Up to 20 vouchers could go to foster children.

Rep. Kim Hammer (R-Benton), lead sponsor of the bill, said, "If you have a foster child,  they may not necessarily have an IEP, but that doesn’t mean they don't have needs that the Succeed Scholarship opportunity would certainly help them out."

The State Board of Education capped the program at 100 vouchers for the 2016-17 school year, the first year the program was available. Subsequent years do not have a voucher cap. An appropriation bill for the state Department of Education calls for $800,000 to fund the Succeed Scholarship program for the 2017-2018 school year, the same amount of funding for the program that was appropriated in the 2016 fiscal session of the General Assembly.

Democratic lawmakers in the Senate committee raised concerns about the lack of a cap in the original legislation, as well as the expanding definition of who qualifies for a scholarship.

"It’s the mission creep of it all," Sen. Joyce Elliott (D-Little Rock) said. "I could come up with a whole list of smaller groups of people who might do well under the bill."

Hammer responded, "If we identify a population of kids that need the help that this would allow, why would we not want to at least on a -  if nothing else - pilot program be able to incorporate them into the framework of this?"

Opponents of the bill also include the Arkansas Education Association, which represents public school teachers.

The Reform Alliance, a nonprofit organization that promotes school choice, administers the scholarship worth $6,646 per student for the 2016-17 school year. That sum is the base amount of per-pupil funding that a public school would receive from the state to educate the student. When a student receives a Succeed Scholarship, the money is instead diverted to a private school. The scholarship is available to any family regardless of household income.

Earlier this session Governor Hutchinson signed a bill into law that permits nonaccredited schools to participate in the voucher program as long as a school has applied for accreditation. A school would then have four years to attain accreditation, during which time students would be eligible for the scholarship.

A second bill that would allow superintendents to waive the requirement that a student attend public school for a year before being eligible to participate in the Succeeds Scholarship is awaiting the governor's signature to become law.

House Bill 1567 now goes to the full Senate.

This reporting is courtesy of the Arkansas Nonprofit News Network, an independent, nonpartisan news project dedicated to producing journalism that matters to Arkansans.

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