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 House 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, 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 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 of the 100 vouchers could go to foster children.
Rep. Kim Hammer (R-Benton), lead sponsor of the bill, said, "We’re talking about a very narrow population. And granted they don’t have IEPs, not all of them do, but that doesn't mean that their needs shouldn't be met in a way that is nontraditional to what the public school offers."
Representatives from the Arkansas Education Association, which represents public school teachers, the Arkansas Association of Educational Administrators, which represents school superintendents, and the Arkansas Public Policy Panel, a progressive advocacy organization, spoke against the bill.
"The whole foundation of the Succeed Scholarship program was for students with IEPs," Tracey-Ann Nelson, executive director of the Arkansas Education Association, said. "So to eliminate that now for any student in foster care without an IEP seems to me problematic and changes the whole foundation of the Succeed Scholarship program.
"Expanding a program that takes public funds, funnels them through a third party organization backed by people acting on behalf of private entities that have no public face is the opposite of what we know to be good government."
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.
Last week, 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 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 may be considered by the Senate Education Committee this week.
House Bill 1567 now goes to the full House.