Gov. Asa Hutchinson is lending his support to legislation that would create a five-year pilot program using state money to cover the cost of sending low-income students to private schools in Pulaski County. It’s called the Capital Promise Scholarship and would provide up to $3.5 million annually from the governor’s discretionary fund to pay the tuition of about 500 children.
Opponents of the bill say the voucher plan would further undermine public schools that are already struggling. Meeting with reporters Monday, Hutchinson defended the proposal by saying it was needed to provide options for kids in low-performing schools.
"It’s hard for me to see anyone looking at this program and saying that this does not give good options for students and parents who want their students to have a good education," Hutchinson said. "It doesn’t compel anybody to leave the public schools. It doesn’t even incentivize them to leave public schools. It just gives them the choice if they are in a school that doesn’t fit for their child."
The governor said his staff worked with the sponsors of the bill – Rep. Ken Bragg, R-Sheridan, and Sen. Blake Johnson, R-Corning – to craft SB 620.
"I wanted to see the right model that I thought would fit," Hutchinson said. "It was a real progression."
Sen. Joyce Elliot, D-Little Rock, is a former public school teacher and vice-chair of the Senate Education Committee. In an interview with KUAR News, she said Hutchinson met with lawmakers from Pulaski County last week to discuss the bill, but dismissed her concerns about the proposal.
"As I said to the governor last Tuesday, I think this is an idea that is not a particularly good one for our kids or our community, and I want to be very, very clear that I am not against choice just to be against choice, nor this bill. What is bothersome to me is, you know, it’s not hard to do the research on vouchers," Elliot said.
She pointed to Milwaukee, Wisconsin and Florida as places where voucher programs have been in place for decades, but been a failure. After a similar proposal didn’t pass in the Arkansas Legislature two years ago, Elliot called this latest bill a strategic way "to put black kids’ faces at the front of this effort... as a way to, according to what they said, put black legislators in a bad position where they can’t be against black kids – and I’m absolutely not against black kids or any kids – then the next thing is to get black ministers involved so they will put pressure on black legislators."
She suggested public schools would be hurt by the proposal and that state money should go toward traditional programs.
"There is nothing here to experiment with, there is nothing here that we should call a pilot because we already know how this works," Elliot said. "So my position is that we should, rather than scattering our forces and scattering our resources, we should be working to have world class schools for all kids."
Hutchinson said he listened to the concerns of Democrats at last week’s meeting, but has also been listening to parents.
"Parents, if they have children that are in a poor performing school, I haven’t seen any parents that say 'we don’t want options.' In contrast, I've had parents that say 'we would like to have options. We want our child in a well performing school,'" Hutchinson said.