Voucher-like bill dies again in House

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Brian Chilson

Rep. Jim Dotson

For the second time this legislative session, a controversial bill that would establish education savings accounts to be used at parents' discretion to fund private school and other education costs failed to pass in the Arkansas House.

Senate Bill 746 failed by a 43-50 vote Friday. The bill and its predecessor, House Bill 1222, have a long list of opponents. The legislation was initially opposed by Governor Hutchinson because of its potential cost, but he later said he supported it after HB 1222 was amended to cap the growth of the program. HB 1222 failed in a 37-47 vote in the House earlier this month after passionate testimony from representatives who said the bill would negatively impact public school districts they represent. That same day, SB 746 was amended to mirror the failed legislation and was amended again a few days later in committee to address lawmakers' concerns.

Under SB 746, individuals and corporations who contribute to the education savings accounts, to be managed by nonprofit organizations, would receive an income tax credit equal to 65 percent of their donation. The donation would also qualify for a federal income tax deduction. Parents could use the dollars in the savings accounts for private school fees or home school education. The tax credits, capped at $3 million, would be awarded in the second and subsequent years of the program. The program would sunset after four years.

Rep. Jim Dotson (R-Bentonville), a lead sponsor of the bill, said on the House floor that SB 746 was "the ultimate in local control."

"When parents are given the ability to customize their child’s education, many will take advantage of the opportunity tailoring their child’s education to that child’s individual needs," Dotson said.

Critics of the bill say the education savings accounts are a voucher program. School vouchers use state money to fund scholarships that pay for students to attend private school. Opponents include the Arkansas Education Association, which represents public school teachers; the Arkansas Association of Educational Administrators, which represents superintendents; the Arkansas School Boards Association; the Arkansas Rural Education Association; the Rural Community Alliance; Arkansas Advocates for Children and Families; and the Arkansas Public Policy Panel.

Debate on the House floor lasted an hour.

While speaking against the bill, both Rep. Kim Hammer (R-Benton) and House Education Committee Chair Rep. Bruce Cozart (R-Hot Springs), called on Hutchinson to create a blue ribbon commission to determine the future direction of education in Arkansas.

Hammer said the last time there was such a commission was in 2002, and that there were now a lot more stakeholders in education: "home schoolers, private schools, charter schools, public schools, schools that have been taken over by the state, schools that have been released back by the state, probably going to be taken back over by the state.

"Where's the one point in time we can put our finger on it and say, 'This is where everybody that has an interest was allowed to come to the table and put forward a comprehensive overall plan that says this is where we are moving forward, we're not just going to go here and then go there the next time, but we're going to have one comprehensive plan'? Where is it?"

Cozart echoed Hammer's sentiments, "The future of education, if we don't do something -- it's just going to get worse. ... We've got to have a plan. We can't just come in and change things every year without a plan."

In an emailed response to questions, Governor Hutchinson said it is "undetermined at this point" whether he will appoint a panel to consider the future of education in Arkansas. In past statements, the governor has pointed to work being done by ForwARd Arkansas, a collaboration between the Walton Family Foundation, the Winthrop Rockefeller Foundation and the Arkansas Department of Education, aimed at improving education in the state.

Speaking for the bill, Rep. Ken Bragg (R-Sheridan) said there were five superintendents in his district who were against the bill, but that he was voting for it because "parents should be able to make the best education decisions for their children."

Rep. Mary Bentley (R-Perryville) encouraged her colleagues "to be bold, to be courageous, to don't listen to fear."

"I can tell you, your superintendent didn't choose you to sit in that chair," Bentley said. "God chose you to sit in that chair. God chose you to sit in that chair, and if he wants you back here in two years, if he has favor, you'll be back, that's how you're going to get here. But I'm telling you, while you're sitting in that chair, he wants you to do the right thing. He wants you to vote the right way."

Rep. Charlotte Douglas (R-Alma), vice chair of the House Education Committee, spoke in favor of the bill, saying that it would bring competition to education. "Competition in education will drive improvements that we can never legislate," she said.

Rep. Jana Della Rosa (R-Rogers) said she was against SB 746 "on principle."

"Education's not free market," Della Rosa said. "People say, 'Schools ought to be run like businesses because, you know, competition and you know, they are much more efficient and public schools are wasting all this money and students are the product' -- I've heard that a lot, students are the product. Businesses don't actually care about their product. Businesses turn out the best product they have to get or have to make to make profit, that's what businesses are actually after to make money, and I got no issue with that, but I don't really think that that ought to be the goal of education."

Governor Hutchinson said in an emailed statement that he is "doubtful" similar legislation will come up during next year's fiscal session or in a special session of the legislature. The 91st General Assembly is expected to recess after Monday's session.

Arkansas Advocates for Children and Families and the Arkansas Public Policy Panel have provided donations to the Arkansas Nonprofit News Network. Arkansas Public Policy Panel donated specifically to support legislative coverage on education issues. Donors have no say in editorial decisions.

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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