Gov. Asa Hutchinson’s attack on conventional public school districts in Pulaski County ratcheted up today with the surprise evening announcement of a plan to pump $3.5 million a year into a voucher program to send 500 Pulaski students to private schools.

In the manner of euphemisms currently popular, he calls it a “scholarship” program. It’s a school voucher — a transfer of public tax money to private schools. It’s a transfer that, with loss of students, will also cause a loss of state support to the four public school districts in Pulaski. This is on top of proliferating charter school districts, which are taxpayer-financed but privately run school districts that don’t answer to the people through elected school boards. They’ve bled thousands into largely unaccountable schools that have demonstrated mixed results.

Said the governor’s news release:

This demonstration project will provide school choice options and expand pathways for higher education attainment for low-income students and families who live in the state’s largest county.

This is in addition to an existing Succeed scholarship program for children with individual education programs. It has sent children with a variety of learning problems, some relatively minor, into private schools with state money. Rep. Mark Lowery is expanding that program to cover existing private school students, where it was begun to serve students moving from public schools. It will provide $3 million a year under new legislation.

Sen. Jim Hendren has also proposed a statewide “scholarship” program to allow people to direct income taxes up to $3 million a year to pay to send some 400 or more low-income students to private schools. They need not have special education needs.

The governor’s bill would provide $3.5 million to pay for some 500 students from low-income families to go to private schools, religious or otherwise. I commented before that the very first of these programs was a camel’s nose in the tent. Looks like a full hump is inside now. This could run to almost $10 million dollars, or sufficient state funding for some 1,500 students to receive tax money to attend private schools.

Why Pulaski? It’s where the money is (students).

The governor’s news release


The sponsors of SB 620 are Senator Blake Johnson (Corning) and Representative Ken Bragg (Sheridan). Co-sponsors include Senator Mark Johnson (Little Rock) and Representatives Doug House (North Little Rock), Mark Lowery (Maumelle), and Carlton Wing (North Little Rock).

Pulaski County was chosen for a number of reasons, including its concentration of eligible families; the county’s competitive private school market; and the higher education options available to students upon graduation.

Funding for the Capital Promise Scholarship Pilot Program will come from the Governor’s discretionary funds at a cost of $3.5 million annually, which will establish approximately 500 scholarships throughout Pulaski County. The program will be administered through the Arkansas Department of Education.

Governor Hutchinson issued the following statement:

“This is an important and meaningful step in providing low-income families with a choice in the education their children receive. Pulaski County offers a unique opportunity for us to effectively evaluate a school choice scholarship program and measure student achievement.

“I appreciate the time and effort Sen. Blake Johnson and Rep. Ken Bragg, sponsors of the legislation, have spent with me on this issue. Every student deserves the opportunity to reach his or her potential, and this bill will help them do just that.”

Eligibility qualifications for the program are as follows:

Family income must qualify the student for the Free or Reduced Lunch through the National School Lunch Program

Student must be a resident of Pulaski County

Student attended a public school in the previous year (excluding incoming kindergarten students)

The school chosen must be an accredited non-public school

Participating students who graduate from the program with a GPA of at least 2.5 are eligible to receive $5,000 per year for use at an institution of higher education in Pulaski County. Those institutions include Arkansas Baptist College; Philander Smith College; University of Arkansas – Pulaski Technical College; University of Arkansas at Little Rock; and Shorter College.

Students can combine the Capital Promise Scholarship with the Academic Challenge Scholarship.

The Capital Promise Scholarship Pilot Program is a five-year pilot program, and if passed, will be available no later than the 2020-2021 school year. Participating non-public schools must administer a national norm-referenced assessment annually to measure student achievement.

One comment: The program provides a better college scholarship to students who need not meet a high ACT score cutoff, as is the case with the lottery scholarship.

Another comment: Why not Benton County?

And another: Florida started with a similar scholarship program and now pumps $1 billion in public money into private schools. Accountability has been lacking. Scandals have been many. The faith-based belief in “choice” as a path to better education has been borne out in very few pieces of rigorous research. This may be where we are headed in Waltonsas, where the Walton fortune drives the “choice” agenda through a dedicated propaganda unit at the University of Arkansas, through a variety of nonprofits and highly paid lobbyists and in campaign contributions to sufficient numbers of legislators to get the job done.

In the end, the agenda calls for the demise of a broad, egalitarian and accountable public school system, once the pride of the U.S. At the point we learn whether that was a good idea, it will be too late to go back.

The evening announcement of this after the legislature adjourned for a spring break strikes me as the equivalent of a D.C. document dump. Schools are out. Legislators are on the road. There’s no time during the day for the tiny retinue of Capitol reporters to hustle up reactions. Not that it likely matters.

The Arkansas Democrat-Gazette has not been aggressive on school choice reporting. Maybe it is its shrinking staff. Maybe it is the publisher’s support of the Walton agenda. Go get ‘em, Cynthia.

PS: Asa once opposed school vouchers. In fact, he often spoke against vouchers  But the Waltons run things now.