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Senate vote favors education accounts

Plan on pilot program moves to House by Michael R. Wickline | March 22, 2017 at 3:29 a.m.

Legislation that would authorize a state pilot program to create education savings accounts for students cleared the Arkansas Senate on Tuesday.

The 22-5 vote on Senate Bill 746 by Sen. Blake Johnson, R-Corning, sent it to the House for further consideration.

Similar legislation -- House Bill 1222 by Rep. Jim Dotson, R-Bentonville -- failed to clear the House last week. The House voted 37-47 for HB1222, which needed 51 votes in the 100-member House.

"This bill is simply a mechanism allowing parents [to access] alternative educational opportunities for children around the state of Arkansas," Johnson told senators.

"Our constitutional responsibility is to fund a free public education for all children," Johnson said. "This program will not destroy our responsibility to the children from Arkansas. It will just give opportunity to children who don't fit in the box. ... This is for not for the wealthy. This is for all."

But Sen. Joyce Elliott, D-Little Rock, said, "What's bad about this whole thing is we don't have a plan for education in our state.

"What I am really speaking against is the way I see us watering down our future," she said.

"We are not talking about world-class schools for anybody. We just keep watering down what little we have, and at some point we are going to have to stop," Elliott said.

Senate Republican leader Jim Hendren of Sulphur Springs told senators that he was initially somewhat reluctant to support the bill.

"This bill is an opportunity to encourage all of our schools, our charter schools, our private schools, our home schools and our public schools to strive for excellence," he said.

"The absolute worst-case scenario for a public school is they lose 1 percent of their kids. A school of 1,000 students stands to lose 10 kids and the revenue that comes from the state for those 10 kids," Hendren said.

SB746 would allow parents to spend education money as they see fit, but the payments actually would be made by nonprofit organizations to education providers. The education savings accounts allowed by the bill would be managed by those nonprofit organizations. Funding for the savings accounts would come from individual and corporate taxpayers diverting their income-tax dollars to the nonprofit organizations. Those taxpayers would receive a tax credit. The tax credits would be limited to $3 million a year in state funds in fiscal 2019, 2020 and 2021.

The bill would establish for students education savings accounts worth about $6,700 per year. Covered expenses would include private school tuition, textbooks, testing, college, summer programs, speech pathology, transportation and uniforms.

Johnson said he added anti-discrimination clauses and multiple amendments to SB746 to distinguish it from HB1222.

Legislation on education savings accounts has been enacted in five states: Arizona, Florida, Mississippi, Nevada and Tennessee, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Advocates say Nevada has the most expansive law, but the Nevada Supreme Court ruled that the state could not pay for the accounts using money intended for public schools.

Information for this article was contributed by Brian Fanney of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.

A Section on 03/22/2017

Print Headline: Senate vote favors education accounts

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