Voucher-like bill revived in Senate committee

Sen. Blake Johnson (file photo)
Sen. Blake Johnson

A controversial bill that would establish education savings accounts to be used at parents' discretion to fund private school and other education costs passed in a voice vote with some dissent in the Senate Education committee Monday.

A version of the bill failed to pass in the House in a 37-47 vote last week.

Senate Bill 746, and its predecessor, House Bill 1222, has 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.

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.

On Monday, the Senate version of the bill was amended to address some lawmakers' concerns about the bill. The amended bill would require that schools comply with federal anti-discrimination legislation. It also specifies that no more than 1 percent of students in a school district could receive an education savings account per academic year and that the funds could not be saved to pay for college expenses once a student graduates from high school.

"We are not trying to disparage public schools," Sen. Blake Johnson, (R-Corning), lead sponsor of SB 746, said. "We can’t fit everybody into the box that we created, no matter how good the student is or how bad the student is. I just want the opportunity for all children to be educated in their way and by their parent's choice."

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.

Tracey-Ann Nelson, the executive director of the Arkansas Education Association, testified against the bill.

"All our students in Arkansas deserve a chance at success and the proven way to accomplish that is well resourced public schools, not a risky voucher program like education savings accounts," Nelson said.

In Arkansas, the largest portion of the cost of a public school student’s education is covered by what is called “foundation funding” — a mixture of state general revenue and local property taxes that the state collects and then remits to local school districts. The legislature has established foundation funding at $6,646 per student for the current school year. When a student leaves a public school for a private school, the foundation funding does not follow the student. The student’s former public school district does not receive foundation funding for that student the next year.

SB 746 would not directly divert public education funding to private schools as some voucher programs in other states have done. Instead, dollars that would have otherwise entered state general revenue in the form of income tax would be diverted to the nonprofits administering the education savings accounts. Those nonprofits would then be able to transfer an amount of money equivalent to foundation funding for each academic year into an eligible student’s account.

Parents could use the money in the education savings account to pay for tuition at a private school as well as for other education expenses, including uniforms, books, tutoring services, transportation and examination fees among other things.

Speaking against the bill, Richard Abernathy, executive director of the Arkansas Association of Educational Administrators, recommended the founding of a committee to explore the future of education in Arkansas.

"We need a comprehensive approach on how education is going to look, who all we're going to serve, and where we want Arkansas to be in five to 10 years," he said.

Sen. Joyce Elliott (D-Little Rock) echoed Abernathy's sentiment during discussion about the bill, saying that the "piecemeal" approach to education is not serving the state. As examples of the piecemeal approach, Elliott pointed to legislation to increase the amount of time students spend in recess, as well as the bill to require all students to pass a civics test, along with SB 746.

"I do not know how Arkansas ever becomes a state that can move forward in great leaps and bounds until we can decide what our core mission and direction are," Elliott said.

Sen. Alan Clark (R-Lonsdale) said he also would be in favor of such a committee.

In an emailed statement on the possibility of a committee to consider the future of education in Arkansas, Governor Hutchinson pointed to ForwARd Arkansas, a collaboration between the Walton Family Foundation, the Winthrop Rockefeller Foundation and the Arkansas Department of Education that's aimed at improving education in the state.

"ForwARd Arkansas has already done a great deal of work in addressing needs in this area. However, when the session is over, I look forward to discussing this with Commissioner [Johnny] Key and other education leaders," the statement read.

The bill now goes to the full Senate.

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.

The Arkansas Nonprofit News Network is an independent, nonpartisan news organization dedicated to producing journalism that matters to Arkansans. Our work is re-published by partner newsrooms across the state.