A bill that would expand a special-needs education voucher program to include foster children passed in a 82-3 vote in the House Monday.
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 vouchers could go to foster children.
The State Board of Education capped the program at 100 vouchers for the 2016-17 school year. 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, the same amount of funding for the program that was passed in the 2016 fiscal session of the General Assembly.
Rep. Kim Hammer (R-Benton), lead sponsor of the bill, said, "If anybody has ever worked with foster children, especially those who are in group homes, they know they are going through some real adjustments in life: separations, anxiety issues, coming out of some very abusive situations in some cases, and they may not intellectually require an IEP, but that doesn't mean environmentally they don't need what is being offered."
Opponents of the bill include the Arkansas Education Association, which represents public school teachers. Tracey-Ann Nelson is executive director of the association.
"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," she told the House Education Committee last week.
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 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 Senate.
This reporting is courtesy of the Arkansas Nonprofit News Network, an independent, nonpartisan news project dedicated to producing journalism that matters to Arkansans.