UPDATE: The House today defeated the school voucher bill, which would allow $3 million a year in general tax revenue to go to private schools, church-related and otherwise.
The vote was announced as 35-45, with four voting present. The tally means 16 representatives didn’t vote, the same effect as a no (but four of those were so-called paired votes, where an absent voter was paired with someone on the other side so they wouldn’t be disadvantaged by an unavoidable absence for the vote. ) Witj those four added, the count was 37-47.
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Advocates of the bill had said members were being pressured by superintendents not to vote if they couldn’t vote no, and many did just that.
The bill can be reconsidered by the House. It spent about an hour on debate today.
Rep. Jim Dotson (R-Bentonville) is the sponsor and he closed with a call for a vote for children in a voice cracking with emotion.
The bill is structured as an education savings account because it requires laundering money donated by taxpayers to charitable organizations. The taxpayers get credits and deductions sufficient to offset the payments. The money then goes to private schools. The process avoids any constitutional questions about giving public money to churches and is modeled after programs in other states.
The bill prevents the state from enforcing any standards on schools that receive the money. There’s limited provision for public accountability on recipients of the money and the educational benefits.
The bill was downsized from its original form, at $6 million a year and yearly increases. The amendment came after pressure from Gov. Asa Hutchinson. Dotson pitched the bill as a four-year “pilot” program. About 700 students would get the money. Dotson said it could “change the future of their life.” In Lousiana, results show students on the whole did worse at the private voucher beneficiaries than they had done in public schools.
From debate, it’s clear some people don’t understand that this is about parents putting money into the program to get it back. It’s not. In fact, corporate contributions are specifically contemplated as a source of credits. The Waltons, big supporters of school choice, could, for example, contribute $5 million to the nonprofits and get the money back in the form of credits and federal tax deductions to charity. It would, in that fashion, essentially direct its tax money to private schools rather than to government as a whole.
Rep. James Sturch (R-Batesville) spoke against the bill. He said many people lived in places where they had no private schools to choose. And he said it wasn’t equitable to give money in the program to families for college costs when other students don’t get that benefit. Public schools who lose student will come out net losers, he said.
Rep. Stephen Meeks (R-Greenbrier) said opponents had been stoking fear about damage to public schools. “We have let fear stop us from doing some good things because we’re comfortable where we’re at it.”
Rep. Les Warren (R-Hot Springs) said the bill discriminated against public and charter school students by additional use of the money and he also said it would lead to the breakdown of public schools, which will have less money. “I’d love to see these charitable organizations invest in making our public schools stronger.” The money will be used with “little to no accountablity,” he said. “We must protect public schools.”
Rep. Bob Ballinger (R-Berryville) said the bill wouldn’t hurt public schools. “All we’re talking about doing is empowering a parent,” he said. Why shouldn’t a poor child be able to go to a private school, he asked. (And I’d asked, why shouldn’t we demand the same standards for private schools that get the money?) He said the impact would be small. “Give it an opportunity to see if it works.”
Rep. John Walker (D-Little Rock) praised Sturch and Warren. He said they recognize “where the state needs to be” to best help all children. He complimented the governor for “putting a brake” on the bill. He acknowledged, too, the strong partisan support it enjoys among Republicans, which made it difficult for some to vote against it.
He reminded about the promises of the lottery scholarship, that it would help those most in need. But, he said, most of those benefiting are those already achieving.
“There’s no evaluation component here,” he said.” This is not a good bill. It does not do what is being suggested.”
He warned against a change to a “voucher community” that ultimately destroys public schools.
Rep. Mark Lowery (R-Maumelle) targeted school superintendents, who he said were trying to protect their turf in urging votes against the bill. “The chance of any one school district being impacted dramatically is minimal,” he said.
Dotson insisted the transfer of money to private schools actually saves the state money. This analysis is simplistic and doesn’t consider the fact that every dollar lost to a private school takes away a dollar of which only 45 cents goes to education, the rest to other purposes. Also it doesn’t account for the fact that the $6,600 in state aid transferred to private schools isn’t always paid in that amount for every student, because some districts have large local wealth that reduces the amount the state pays in those districts.
He said the bill wasn’t perfect but that’s what pilot programs are about, identifying needs for modifications.