SEN. BLAKE JOHNSON: Gets vote for voucher bill.

The Senate Revenue and Taxation Committee this morning approved SB 539 to create a $3 million voucher program that would send roughly 400 students to private schools statewide. Some unusual circumstances, suggest the surprise approval of this bill might signal problems for the Pulaski County school voucher bill.

The bill recommended this morning is styled a scholarship program. People can get a direct tax credit for directing money to a private school voucher fund run by a nonprofit. The money then is given to families for private school costs, less a 10 percent administrative fee. Such a program has grown to a billion-dollar transfer to private schools in Florida.

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The bill imposes no education requirements on schools receiving the money and makes no provision for judging the achievement of the students before or after they receive the money.

The bill was called up by surprise, which prompted a negative comment from Committee Chair Jonathan Dismang that he didn’t expect the occurrence to happen again. Also, Paul Gehring of the Department of Finance and Administration was prepared to speak against the bill because the loss of $3 million in revenue wasn’t provided for in the budget. But he said the governor had instructed the agency to withdraw its opposition and said he’d find a way to accommodate the money.

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Richard Abernathy, director of the school superintendents association, opposed the bill as voucher-type legislation.”Any time you give taxpayer money to a private school, there’s a problem,” he said. He said the bill carried no accountability for private schools like that applied to public schools.

Sen. Jason Rapert
hectored Abernathy. “What is it your business if it doesn’t affect public school budgets?”

Abernathy said, “We’re talking about accountability for all kids.”

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The bill DOES indirectly affect the school budget because it takes $3 million out of general revenue, some of which would otherwise find its way to public schools. The impact analysis raises some questions about how much money a taxpayer could carry forward by way of credits given for donations to the program.

The Arkansas Education Association also said it opposed the bill.

Sen. Cecile Bledsoe moved for do-pass and Sen. Trent Garner and Rapert audibly supported the motion. Only Sen. Larry Teague was heard to say no when the vote was called. Both Sens. Bruce Maloch and Keith Ingram asked questions about the bill, but neither was heard to vote against it. Dismang declared the do-pass motion had passed.

Still to come: a $3.5 million voucher bill for Pulaski County, SB 620, and expansion of an existing voucher program to $3 million for children with special learning needs.

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Johnson was asked in committee if he’d present the Pulaski voucher bill if this bill passed. He seemed to indicate he would not. After the meeting, he said he wasn’t sure.

Many people weren’t happy about the morning events.

CLARIFICATION: Confusion about this bill coming up stems from the fact that most expected the Pulaski voucher bill to come up in Senate Education Committee this morning. But sponsors recognized they didn’t have the votes there, with three Democrats in opposition and some resistance from committee Republicans. So, as a fallback, voucher proponents decided to move up consideration of the statewide voucher bill, which was already assigned to Revenue and Taxation Committee (in a move that raised eyebrows when Lt. Gov. Tim Griffin did it because it’s more about education than tax policy.)

So, while there were no procedural shenanigans, there was something of a bait-and-switch on which voucher bill was called for debate this morning. All the Pulaski school superintendents were on hand to testify against that bill in the Senate Education Committee. The alternate bill’s appearance was unexpected, a situation to which Dismang seemed to refer.

The future of the Pulaski voucher bill now seems somewhat uncertain, particularly if it requires passage in Senate Education.