Following hours of debate, members of the Arkansas House Education committee narrowly passed a bill that would provide private school scholarships for low-income students.
Lawmakers on Tuesday voted 11 to nine in favor of House Bill 1371, sponsored by Republican Rep. Ken Bragg of Sheridan.
The bill would create a tax credit for individuals and businesses to donate to two funds, which would be run by a private nonprofit. One would provide up to $6 million in credits for donations to provide grants to public schools, while the other would provide $4 million in credits for donations to a fund for low-income students to attend private schools.
Bragg said his bill would give families access to better educational opportunities, in particular for children with special needs.
“This really isn’t about school choice, we have school choice now. What we don’t have is an opportunity for some people to exercise that choice,” Bragg said. “Wealthier parents have options… they can afford to send their children to a private school if that offers the best educational opportunity. Lower income parents just do not have that option, they’re restricted by arbitrary boundaries and income limits.”
Under the bill, a student would have to come from a school district with a percentage of low-income families of 55% or more. The student’s household income would also have to be less than or equal to 200% of the federal poverty level, or about $44,000 per year for a three-person household.
Democratic Rep. Reginald Murdock of Marianna said private schools often rely on special needs instructors from public schools, and spoke against the use of taxpayer funds, through the form of a tax credit, to go toward private facilities that are not subject to the state’s accountability regulations.
“Some places, they are inadequate, we agree with that. But why would we take these resources and segregate them… versus holding accountable the public school, the school boards, the superintendents, administrators, and let’s get that right, versus the way you’re saying, which is unproven,” Murdock said.
Rep. Megan Godfrey, D-Springdale, also spoke against the public school grant program, saying the bill does not guarantee any funding would go toward schools.
Bragg said the bill would not take away funds designated for public schools, and that private students are still subject to state standardized testing. He said existing scholarships, such as the ACE program, prove his bill would not have a large impact on public education.
“If one-tenth of 1% of the students, which is what we’re talking about, leave their schools, there’s a perception that it’s going to be devastating… there have been 500 kids already in the last couple of years in the ACE program, and I don’t hear of any public schools that have gone under because of that,” Bragg said.
Bragg said about 571 students in Arkansas would be eligible for scholarships under his bill. Arkansas Education Association President Carol Fleming spoke against a provision in the bill allowing the program to grow by 25% each year it meets its budgetary limits.
“This $10 million program will cost the state nearly $100 million per year within 10 years, over $284 million annually by year 15, and over $867 million annually by year 20,” Fleming said. “In contrast, Arkansas’ increase in more effective public school resources has averaged less than 2% annually over the past five years.”
The bill now heads to the House floor. The committee also advanced bills that would raise the median teacher salary in the state, and one that would require every high school student to take a computer science course in order to graduate.