REP. KEN BRAGG: Previews coming school voucher bill.

A lobby group backed by the Walton Family Foundation has been beating the PR drums for months to build support for the expansion of school vouchers in Arkansas, currently limited to foster children and children with special education needs (though the broad definition of needs and the lack of strict oversight of the capabilities of the private schools chosen to serve them invite abuse).

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The bill has not been introduced yet, but a preview was given in an op-ed in today’s Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, a dedicated supporter of school vouchers, charter schools and other ideas that damage conventional public education, particularly the Little Rock School District.

It will be called the Arkansas Child Academic Opportunity Scholarship and Grant Act. “Opportunity” and “scholarship” are favored euphemisms for school vouchers. Nationwide, supporters of public schools understand that diverting public money to private schools damages public schools, invites corruption and produces little by way of proven academic results. Yes, many parents like it, often for reasons not strictly related to education quality.

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Here’s the meat of Bragg’s op-ed:

Through privately funded grants and scholarship accounts backed by a state income tax credit, this important bill seeks to make new funding available for lower-income students who choose to enroll in private schools and grants available to qualifying public schools.

 

Lower-income families, certain military families, and foster families who choose private schools would be eligible to receive scholarship accounts up to approximately $7,000 — the average base amount public schools spend per student, per year. Because these scholarships are equal to or less than the cost of educating a student in public schools, they cost the state nothing and can even generate fiscal savings.

 

Scholarship funds would be administered through a nonprofit organization for tuition and fees, dual-enrollment programs with institutions of higher education, tutoring services, course materials, certain therapies, and more. Like health-savings accounts, the accounts would be carefully controlled in a way that ensures families can use funds only for their intended purposes.

 

The bill also includes benefits for students who remain in the public system. All Arkansas public schools serving at least 55% low-income students — about 70% of the schools in the state — would be eligible to apply for and receive grants worth tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars. These grants could be used for everything from technology enhancements to building repairs to social and emotional well-being programs.

First, the phrase privately funded grants and scholarship accounts: This almost certainly means an expansion of the key tool of existing voucher programs here and elsewhere. It will allow all taxpayers to direct their tax payments to the school voucher fund, not to general revenue. They’d get a dollar-for-dollar credit for donations to vouchers on state income tax. If there’s no limit on the credit, you can imagine where Walton heirs will direct their money.

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Then, there’s that phrase “cost the state nothing.” Depends on who you mean by state. As the Little Rock School District has so painfully learned through six years of the failed state takeover, the state asserts responsibility by Constitution for providing a suitable and equitable public education. Every child that takes $7,000 to go to a private school is taking state money from a local school district, the amount varying based on district wealth. The Little Rock School District is being hammered already with student losses to charter and private school vouchers (with no showing of meaningful academic improvement). Will the private schools be subject to the same state oversight given the Little Rock, Pine Bluff and other school districts?  I’d bet no.

Also about “cost-free:” If income tax liability is reduced by a credit for donations to the school voucher program, will that not mean a reduction in the amount of income tax paid into general revenue?

Then there’s administration by a nonprofit organization. Does that mean it will be beyond the reach of the Arkansas Freedom of Information Act? A good bet for the organization to be chosen: The Reform Alliance, which already administers the existing voucher program and is led by Laurie Lee, a longtime paid advocate for Walton Foundation education initiatives, including a raft of beat-up-public-school events during National School Choice Week.

Public school advocates banded together several years ago to defeat a Walton-backed effort to charterize the Little Rock School District and also managed to hold back huge expansion of the existing “scholarship” voucher program (including by an attempted raid of federal CARES Act money). More than 500 received the money last year, according to a legislative report. 

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How much do Walton Inc. and its legislative enablers plan on expanding the voucher program? That will be a key question. Little Rock, though the richest source of bodies for the choicers, is by no means the only target of opportunity. Small districts, particularly, can be crippled by the loss of just a few students to a jackleg private school startup. In Louisiana, rural districts were hit by the loss of students to low-quality church schools. Results were disastrous, if poor test scores mean more to you than parent satisfaction. (When you see some of Laurie Lee’s PR about happy voucher recipients: Has a parent ever said their choice of school for a child was a bad choice?)

Will there be any standards applied to private schools that receive voucher money? Testing standards? School report cards based on test results, graduation rates, year-to-year improvement?

This year, the voucher crowd has brought a carrot with its public school cudgel —  benefits for students who remain in the public system.

All Arkansas public schools serving at least 55% low-income students — about 70% of the schools in the state — would be eligible to apply for and receive grants worth tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars. These grants could be used for everything from technology enhancements to building repairs to social and emotional well-being programs.

“Eligible to apply.” Is that a guarantee of receipt of money? How much money will be provided? Who will provide it? The state? The Walton Foundation? What conditions might apply to grants? Who will be the decision-makers?

Many questions clearly remain. Revenue impact on state support for local school districts should be Topic A. The bill will have a raft of sponsors and, probably, the governor’s support (though there was a day when Asa Hutchinson was an opponent of school vouchers.)

The public school lobby is not what it once was. The legislature is more indoctrinated in right-wing and Walton/Billion Dollar Boys Club school ideology than it ever has been.

Welcome to Darkansas.

 

 

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