Ibby Caputo, reporting for the Arkansas Nonprofit News Network on Thursday’s defeat of a House school voucher bill, says that Sen. Bart Hester plans to amend legislation in the Senate to incorporate the plan and perhaps try to start it moving in the Senate next week.
Rep. Jim Dotson, a Bentonville Republican, can also try his bill again in the House, where it mustered only 37 of the 51 votes it needed for passage. That resistance will continue, but starting a new Senate efforts provides more time for lobbying should Hester’s bill reach the House. He’ll start with likely opposition from at least three members of the Senate Education Committee — Democrats Linda Chesterfield, Joyce Elliott and Uvalde Lindsey.
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Some points that need making based on widespread misunderstanding:
* I call this a voucher bill, rather than an education savings account bill, because it is more of the former than the latter. Some people still think this bill is about parents depositing money into a savings account from which they withdraw money for tuition. It isn’t. In fact, that is prohibited by the bill. This is about giving a huge tax credit — almost certainly to wealth individuals and corporations — who’d rather put their money into private schools than into general government. Their contributions create funds in nonprofits — a laundering process that is meant to overcome both transparency and questions about tax money going to church schools — that are distributed to students who go to private schools
* The program is NOT cost-free to the state as many have claimed. There are several reasons why. 1) Some students who receive money will be students who aren’t in public school. Any tax credits that fund their private school costs will be new drains on the treasury. 2) The roughly $6,600 a year in support is NOT a wash on money the state currently spends in many school districts. If a student leaves Little Rock schools for a private school, they’ll get $6,600 in tax money, laundered through the nonprofit. But the state, because of Little Rock’s property tax wealth, has only been spending about half that money in state support to the district. The Little Rock District, of course, loses that money. 3) The 65 percent tax credit means a loss to other state services. Public education accounts for only about 45 percent of state spending. But if a taxpayer can designate 65 percent of taxes owed to a private school, rather than all of state government, the state is losing money for other services.
It’s complicated. It’s a camel’s nose in the tent for what backers hope will be the deconstruction of the public education system. Everybody can take their money wherever they want. I’d like to take my $6,600 and spend it elsewhere, too, but that’s not how government works to do the most for the common good.
Finally, and again: The program is unfair. There’s no accountability on beneficiaries. There’s no measurement of value. If private schools get the money, they should play by the same rules others do, including taking all comers, no matter how difficult. And they should be open to record inspection and meet standards. Underscoring this fight for vouchers is the core belief that private schools must somehow be better than public schools. There’s no evidence of that. And, under this legislation, there’s no means to provide any.
Selling this as a limited “pilot” program is a good selling techniqe but disingenuous. Better to call it that old Capitol cliche — camel’s nose in the tent.