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OPINION | KEN BRAGG: Take the next step

by KEN BRAGG SPECIAL TO THE DEMOCRAT-GAZETTE | January 29, 2021 at 2:48 a.m.

Arkansas has already taken the first steps toward greater educational opportunity with public-school open enrollment, charter schools, and a small-scale private school program for students with disabilities. As the nation celebrates National School Choice Week and Arkansas reflects on a challenging year of changing landscapes and shifting educational needs, it is time for the state to take the next step for students.

We as state lawmakers have an opportunity to do exactly that in 2021 with the Arkansas Child Academic Opportunity Scholarship and Grant Act. If we can maintain our focus on children and families, we can create a win-win-win situation that will help families struggling with the effects of the pandemic, assist struggling public schools, and increase school-choice options statewide.

The global pandemic has created immense challenges for families that have had to learn how to navigate remote-learning environments and a sudden need for supplemental materials, educational enrichment programs, and school choice. Yet, for all the trouble and difficulty, the covid-19 crisis has also taught us valuable lessons about how students learn and what they need to succeed academically. It has never been so clear that education involves much more than a school itself.

Education is not a place, but an experience defined not only by the type of school a student attends, but by the additional services and supports he or she is able to access.

This concept of a well-rounded education is at the heart of the Academic Opportunity Scholarship and Grant Act, which I and numerous co-sponsors will be presenting for consideration by the General Assembly. Through privately funded grants and scholarship accounts backed by a state income tax credit, this important bill seeks to make new funding available for lower-income students who choose to enroll in private schools and grants available to qualifying public schools.

Lower-income families, certain military families, and foster families who choose private schools would be eligible to receive scholarship accounts up to approximately $7,000 -- the average base amount public schools spend per student, per year. Because these scholarships are equal to or less than the cost of educating a student in public schools, they cost the state nothing and can even generate fiscal savings.

Scholarship funds would be administered through a nonprofit organization for tuition and fees, dual-enrollment programs with institutions of higher education, tutoring services, course materials, certain therapies, and more. Like health-savings accounts, the accounts would be carefully controlled in a way that ensures families can use funds only for their intended purposes.

The bill also includes benefits for students who remain in the public system. All Arkansas public schools serving at least 55% low-income students -- about 70% of the schools in the state -- would be eligible to apply for and receive grants worth tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars. These grants could be used for everything from technology enhancements to building repairs to social and emotional well-being programs.

This combined bill reflects a recognition that all Arkansas students deserve support, irrespective of which type of school they attend. It represents something truly rare: a chance for advocates on both sides of the debate over K-12 education to work together toward a kid-focused solution in which everybody wins.

This National School Choice Week, as Arkansas and the nation celebrate educational opportunity with a new appreciation and understanding, is the perfect time for our state to take the next steps toward providing a high-quality education to every student. Let us apply the lessons of the pandemic, put aside our differences, and reach across the philosophical aisle to advance educational opportunity for all.

--ā€“ā€“ā€“ā€“ā€“vā€“ā€“ā€“ā€“ā€“--

State Rep. Ken Bragg represents

District 15.

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