The House today defeated SB 746 to begin a school voucher program to put public money in private schools. The vote was 43-50, which means the advocates picked up votes from an earlier 37-47 defeat.
The bill follows a pattern established in other states. It requires establishment of nonprofit organizations to essentially launder money into private schools so that the state isn’t in a position of writing direct checks to, say, church schools.
Money accumulates in the nonprofits by charitable contributions from taxpayers, including corporations. Contributors get a straight tax credit (refund of dollars spent) up to 65 percent of the money they contribute. The rest of the money can be an itemized deduction on state and federal tax returns. The effect is to allow taxpayers who contribute to designate that amount of tax money solely for private school education, rather than general state budget needs.
Parents can apply for the money, with some preference given to lower income families, but it’s not entirely need-based.
The program provides $3 million a year for four years. There’s no requirement of accreditation on schools receiving the money and they are exempt from accountability rules that apply to public schools. Many parts of the state lack private schools on whcih the money can be used. The money is enough to provide about $6,600 a year in private school voucher money to almost 700 students. No more than 1 percent of a school district’s population could receive money to go to a private school, but that could be as many as 240 students in Little Rock or 165 in Bentonville (where, incidentally, the Waltons are underwriting a new private school.)
The arguments were familiar, including “choice” and options for children in failing schools. What we know from study in Little Rock about charter schools, however, is that most of the students who’ve taken advantage of that choice were already meeting proficiency standards (81 percent by numbers Baker Kurrus compiled when superintendent.) Proponents, too, say this kind of program gives an opening to students who can’t now afford private schools. But in the years ahead, students already in private schools can apply and, if poor students don’t fill slots, others can.
Rep. Mary Bentley spoke tearfully of the success she saw in taking her daughter 45 minutes every day to a Conway Christian school. She challenged school superintendents who opposed the bill to preserve school funding to find a way to reduce state Medicaid spending.
Rep. Charlotte Douglas said other options would create competition and encourage improvement by all schools.
Another supporter, Rep. Clint Penzo, found a way to work into discussion tax money spent on foreign students who attend public colleges in Arkansas. Huh.
Rep. Jana Della Rosa joined Reps. Kim Hammer and Bruce Cozart in speaking against the bill. “Do you really want to open this door and go down the path where this leads?” Many Republicans would say yes and cheer the “free market.” Education is “not free market,” she said. “Public schools have to take every child that comes, regardless of how expensive they are, regardless of the color of the skin, regardless how different their cultures are. Private schools don’t. If you can cherry pick, naturally you are going to do better than those who cannot.”
She scoffed at the notion this is a pilot program. “We all know what’s going to happen,” she said. More will go to private schools and less will go to public schools. “But what happens when we get to the end?” What happens, she asks, when the private schools say they don’t want the more expensive kids.
Della Rosa recognized the money laundering scheme. “We’re allowing rich people to appropriate tax dollars.” Exactly. A Walton could underwrite the whole program with $4.5 million contribution to the nonprofits and thus give $3 million of its tax bill (repaid through a tax credit) to private schools rather than $3 million to general state revenue, only 45 percent of which goes to public schools.
She said choice is already available through district choice among school districts, the Succeed Scholarship for special needs kids and a growing number of charter schools.
Douglas contended there are private schools that take students “public schools don’t want.”
Rep. Michelle Gray, a previous opponent, switched her vote today. She said backers had made reasonable accommodations. She said she didn’t think it would hurt her districts because they were good, but would help children in other districts.
Rep. Carlton Wing of North Little Rock said he was convinced the bill wouldn’t hurt public schools and he disputed that it put public money in private schools. (It does, through a laundry.)
Rep. Vivian Flowers read the costs of various private schools, including one cited by Mary Bentley, all well in excess of what the state can provide, meaning they’d likely be beyond the reach of poor children.
The sponsor, Rep. Jim Dotson, put the opposition down to people “who know this will be successful.”
This legislation has been a big push of the American Legislative Exchange Council and, in Arkansas, Americans for Prosperity. In other words, Koch money is a heavy backer of taking public money and diverting it to private schools.