The House Education committee on Thursday defeated a bill that would have created a $3 million statewide voucher program funded with income tax credits. Its sponsor, Rep. Ken Bragg (R-Sheridan), said after the meeting he would not try for a second vote on Senate Bill 539.
Governor Hutchinson endorsed the measure last week (though he said he preferred an alternate voucher bill stalled in committee). But opposition from groups representing public school teachers, superintendents and school boards led legislators of both parties to reject SB 539.
The roll call vote was 7-11, with seven Republicans joining four Democrats to vote against the bill. The committee chair and vice-chair did not vote. The measure required 11 votes to pass.
SB 539 passed the full Senate last week. It proposes establishing scholarships for K-12 students to use to attend private schools, paid for with contributions made by individuals or companies to nonprofits that would administer the scholarships. The contributors would receive state income tax credits in exchange for their donations. A fiscal impact statement prepared by the state Department of Finance and Administration said the bill would reduce state general revenue by $3 million and created "significant additional certification and recordkeeping duties" for the state tax agency. The program would provide vouchers for an estimated 400 students statewide.
Despite its limited scope, opponents of SB 539 said it set a dangerous precedent for steering public money to private schools. The pilot program could be expanded in the future, they warned.
"We have a limited amount of money and 97 percent of our students are in public schools," Rep. Denise Garner (D-Fayetteville) said.
In presenting the bill Thursday, Bragg said the scholarships would give more opportunities to children, especially those from lower-income homes that otherwise couldn't afford private school tuition.
"Public schools are great. It’s just we’re talking about individual students," he said. "There’s going to be individual students who just need a different experience than what a public school can provide. ... It’s not an assault on public education. It’s just an option and a choice that parents can make."
However, as several opponents of the bill pointed out, SB 539 would not limit eligibility in the program to poor families. A household earning up to 150 percent of the qualifying threshold for the federal free or reduced-priced lunch program would be eligible. For a family of four, that threshold would be $71,456 for the 2019-20 school year, well above Arkansas's median family income of $57,421. And, the bill's eligibility criteria are written in such a way that they appear to include almost any student now attending public school, or who now attends private school in grades K-9, regardless of family income or other status.
Brian Duffy, the superintendent of Jacksonville North Pulaski School District, testified against the bill. "My main concern is ... this accountability piece," he said. "Will the private schools still have to comply with [federal school accountability standards]? Will they have to have school improvement plans? Will they have to do course approvals for all their courses that are offered for students?"
Rep. Grant Hodges (R-Rogers), a supporter of the bill, questioned whether public school superintendents had a stake in private school enrollment. "If a parent has decided to send their child to a private school ... then why do you care what is happening in that private school?" Hodges asked.
"Well, to me, if state money’s tied to it ... it’s just my belief that accountability for that school should be the same as [for] the public schools," Duffy said.
The alternative voucher proposal, Senate Bill 620, remains stalled in a Senate committee. It would provide vouchers for Pulaski County students only. Bragg is also a co-sponsor of that bill.
This reporting is courtesy of the Arkansas Nonprofit News Network, an independent, nonpartisan news project dedicated to producing journalism that matters to Arkansans. Find out more at arknews.org.