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Revamped voucher bill still facing headwind

by Rachel Herzog | February 22, 2021 at 7:07 a.m.
State Rep. Ken Bragg, R-Sheridan, is shown in this undated file photo.

School choice proponents filed a bill this month that would allow public funds to be used to pay for private school tuition, with an added provision that would give financial help to certain public schools.

But even with that provision -- which wasn't in similar school choice legislation filed in the past two legislative sessions -- the 2021 bill still faces much of the same opposition as past legislation.

House Bill 1371, by Rep. Ken Bragg, R-Sheridan, would set up a state income tax credit-backed fund capped at $4 million for qualifying students to attend private school, creating about 570 scholarships worth roughly $7,000 each.

Students whose families make less than 200% of the federal poverty level would qualify, as would students with disabilities, children who are or were in the foster care system, and children from military families.

The legislation would also create a pot of grant funding of up to $6 million for public schools with high populations of low-income students.

The funds would be supported by tax credits earned from contributions to education nonprofits made by individual and corporate taxpayers.

Arkansas Republicans have put forth similar legislation, without the public schools provision, in the past two regular legislative sessions. Both times, the legislation failed with bipartisan opposition.

"The public education system is a backbone of our education system, but it can't provide everything to every student," Bragg, who first previewed the legislation in an opinion piece for the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, said in a phone interview Tuesday. "The focus is on the children here, and what needs the children have that can't be provided by lower-income families and that's our focus. It's not a public school versus private school issue, it's just what's best for the individual child and their needs for different educational opportunities."

While state support of school choice is a tenet of the Arkansas GOP platform, lawmakers from both parties said last week that they worried about public schools being adequately funded. Still, the bill counts nearly 40 Republican co-sponsors in the 100-member House and 35-member Senate.

Each year, the state distributes what is called foundation funding to every public school district on a per-student basis. Typically, a student leaving a traditional school district makes the district ineligible to receive state funding for that student, which was at the core of those legislators' concerns.

Rep. Nelda Speaks, R-Mountain Home, said her concerns with the bill boil down to public school finances, and that she didn't think setting up grants for public schools did enough to offset those concerns.

"I don't think that the public schools are going to get all that much, and then, plus, you have no idea where this funding will go when you give it to the public school," Speaks said.

Sen. Linda Chesterfield, D-Little Rock, said Friday she had not yet read the 29-page bill, but after hearing a description of the legislation, she said the state should concentrate on investing in schools and giving them equitable opportunities to be successful, rather than relying on "fly-by-night remedies."

She said her greatest concern is that the state will continue to "divvy up the public education fund into more and more adventures, which means that nobody's being adequately served."

"I'm just not really crazy about too many new voucher programs. ... The vast majority of poor children are still being left behind," Chesterfield said. "I think it's going to continue to diminish the investment that we make in the Little Rock School District."

WHICH SCHOOLS?

House Minority Leader Tippi McCullough, D-Little Rock, said she was still studying the legislation but had the same concerns as she did with voucher bills in previous sessions, and added that adding more vouchers would affect areas that have more private schools.

"If you pull kids out, of course, we lose that per-student funding, that takes away money from the schools, and that's another interesting question, where are most of the private schools? Little Rock. There's not a lot of private schools in Sheridan that I know of," said McCullough, who also noted that there are some private schools concentrated in Northwest Arkansas.

Bragg said the legislation would only create vouchers for a small proportion of Arkansas' public school student population. McCullough said she had concerns about oversight and accountability in private school voucher programs, and getting "to the point where it gets a little more out of control."

The bill's specific accountability measures include reporting by and auditing of the approved nonprofits, Bragg noted, which could include organizations such as the Reform Alliance in Little Rock.

The Reform Alliance manages the Succeed Scholarship, a voucher-like program that for 2021 provided 665 scholarships worth about $7,000 each.

Another nonprofit, ACE Scholarships, serves 289 students in 37 schools in Arkansas. The program pays up to 50% of private school tuition, or a maximum of $2,000 a year for grades kindergarten through eight and $3,000 a year for high school.

"It could attract different ones once the program's in place, we'll just have to see what the interest level is," Bragg said. "They would have to be organized as a 501(c)(3) and approved by [the Arkansas Department of Education]."

EDUCATION GROUPS

Opposition to the bill also comes from education organizations in the state including the Arkansas School Boards Association and the Arkansas Rural Education Association.

Dale Query, executive director of the Rural Education Association, said the crux of the opposition from the group's members is the use of public tax money to pay for private school.

"No matter how the language is presented, that's the ultimate result," Query said in an email. "We don't see poor kids being able to take advantage of this due to private school tuition being greater than the foundation funding amount."

Dan Jordan, governmental relations director for the School Boards Association, said in an email Thursday that the organization is opposed to the bill in its current form.

In a written statement, Gov. Asa Hutchinson said he was "supportive of the concept and the purpose of this legislation, and I do want to follow it to see how it is amended or changed as it goes through the legislature."

Kim Mundell, spokeswoman for the Department of Education, said in an email Tuesday that the agency was reviewing the bill and did not have an official position at the time.

The bill has been assigned to the House Education Committee.

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