The House Education Committee today, after a couple of hours of debate, approved a bill to create a school voucher program in Arkansas. The bill drew 12 votes and 4 nays. Four didn’t vote.
It’s styled an education savings account bill, because it sets up a structure for people to transer money they’d otherwise pay to the state and federal govenrment into a fund that would be doled out to pay for students to go to private schools, up to $6.5 million worth the first year of the program.
The bill drew strong opposition from many in public schools, but support from such as a teacher in the Walton-financed School of Education Reform at the University of Arkansas who touted the benefits of sending students to private schools. Others disputed his testimony (indeed a recent comprehensive study in Louisiana obliterated that talking point in that state.)
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Richard Abernathy, leader of the Association of School Administrators, punctured one line of support for the bill, that somehow it would aid disabled children. He said money already exists for those children. And he said the notion of a money savings was likely a fiction because it was a universal program and would divert tax dollars from general revenues.
“This bill discriminates against public school parents,” Abernathy said. The bill would allow diversion of money in the voucher program to college education, a benefit not available to public school students.
Others said the help for many low-income students was illusory because so many live in places where private schools aren’t in reach.
Bobby Hart, superintendent in Hope, said the bill didn’t provide equal access, but created winners and losers. He said it would take money from general revenue, already hurting, more than $11 million by 2025. This will hurt schools, highways, prisons and other programs, he said. Brown v. Board said separate but equal was not acceptable, Hart said, before his time ran out.
“If you continue to take state dollars, you’ll have to do more with less,” Hart said. That could contribute to more district consolidation.
Advocates of the bill said it would get children out of failing schools. How that was defined was left unsaid. Also generally unsaid, except by some superintendents, is the absence in the bill of provisions to ensure that money only goes to adequate schools. Indeed, it prevents any review of those schools.
Dotson closed by urging members to think about “that one kid” whose educational needs would be met.
Gov. Asa Hutchinson, in the past an opponent of vouchers, is said to be neutral on this bill. He won’t try to stop it, in other words.
UPDATE: More from the Arkansas Nonprofit News Network’s Ibby Caputo here.