A bill that would allow superintendents to waive the requirement that a student attend public school for a year before being eligible to participate in a special-needs education voucher program passed 69-7 in the House 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, and must have attended a public school for one year. 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 1056 would allow a superintendent of the student's resident school district to waive the one-year requirement. Rep. Mark Lowery (R-Maumelle) is the lead sponsor of the bill.
"It's a permissive waiver. It's not a mandate," he said. "We want to do the best thing for the kids, and if it's not best for them to be in a program for a year that is not meeting their needs than that superintendent should be able to have that extra resource."
The Reform Alliance, a nonprofit organization that promotes school choice, administers the scholarship, which is capped at 100 vouchers 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.
Other bills that would expand the Succeed Scholarship have been presented this session. House Bill 1461, which is ready for the governor's signature, would allow nonaccredited schools to participate 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.
House Bill 1567 would make foster children living in group homes eligible for a scholarship. It was presented in the House Education Committee on Tuesday, but committee members did not vote on it yet.
Rep. Kim Hammer (R-Benton), lead sponsor of the HB 1567, told the committee, "The kids that are foster kids in these group homes do not have to have an IEP. That is one thing you want to know about this bill because not every foster child needs an IEP, but every foster child needs an opportunity."
Hammer said that there are only 27 children currently utilizing the IEPs, but conceded, "We might have to come back next time around as a legislative session and look at expanding those slots."
Several committee members questioned how the inclusion of foster children would affect students with disabilities.
Rep. Frances Cavenaugh (R-Walnut Ridge) said, "This program was designed for children with disabilities ... and now we're putting another group in the equal."
Hammer said he would be open to amending the bill to give preference to students with disabilities or to limit the bill only to foster children with IEPs. He decided to pull the bill to amend it when it was pointed out that a part of the bill conflicted with HB 1461.