FOR VOUCHERS: Rep. Ken Bragg gives closing argument for his voucher bill.

The House Education Committee took up an expansion of private school vouchers this morning and ran into opposition at taking money from public schools and placing an additional burden on the Education Department.

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In the end, the bill received a do-pass on an 11-9 vote. The initial roll call was 10-9, but chair Rep. Bruce Cozart gave the bill the 11th voted needed to send it to the floor. He could be heard saying he’d “changed my mind” so that it could reach floor debate. Opponents included three Democrats (Love, Murdock and Godfrey) and six Republicans (Deffenbaugh, Speaks, Maddox, Hollowell, Lee Johnson and Stu Smith). All the aye votes were Republicans, including Pulaski Republicans Lowery and Brown.

A significant change was the support of Rep. DeAnn Vaught (R-Horatio) who opposed the voucher bill in 2019. She said she remained torn, but thought changes in this bill from 2019 were a good compromise.

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Fiscal impact statements say the bill would allow taxpayers to get up to $10 million in credits for designating their taxes due to pay for private school vouchers up to the almost $7,000 per student provided in state aid to public schools. $10.4 million would come out of general revenue, which supports all state programs. It would cost almost $500,000 in personnel costs for the state to oversee. The bill would double the 500 students now allowed to receive vouchers for special education programs or as foster children. The only requirement for the voucher expansion would be family income level. Some of the money could be used for grants to public school districts.

The tax credit plan is open-ended and can increase by 25 percent a year.

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Supporters contend that the lost general revenue is offset by a reduction in state expenses on school students, but not wholly. And this overlooks the percentage loss of general revenue for other services besides education. Every tax dollar normally goes about half to education and half to other services. This tax credit means every one of those dollars is directed to the private school education fund.

The vouchers would be available to students in public school districts with 55 percent or more low-income families, as measured by subsidized lunch eligibility. It would be open to students from families with less than 200 percent of the federal poverty level, or $52,000 for a family of four. (The average family income in Arkansas is about $48,000.)

The money will be administered by a private nonprofit — created with support from Walton money — that will get a 10 percent fee for handling the money.

The promise of grants to public school districts from the fund includes no guarantees.

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Private schools are not subject to regulation by the state, as public schools are. This bill will not require private schools to provide special education services, which public schools must provide.  Nor does it require transportation or full nutrition services that many districts provide. The bill requires no accountability for private schools (they will take state tests, but the state has no power to punish the private schools for low scores). The Springdale school superintendent made many of these points in opposing the bill. The Bryant superintendent noted that private schools don’t have to take all students, as public schools must.

Debate was lengthy.

Opponents included: Carol Fleming, president of the Arkansas Education Association, who said public dollars should go only to public agencies.

Proponents say parents like getting public money to pay for private school education that they believe better for their children. They emphasize “choice” in education. It already exists, but only with private school vouchers currently for about 500 students. Proponents said as many as 2,100 private school seats could be financed by this transfer of public money today. That could take almost $15 million out of state general revenue at the current level of state support.

A cutoff of debate prevented a long list of public school people from speaking against the bill.

In closing for his bill Rep. Ken Bragg (R-Sheridan) said the bill helps lower-income parents get into private schools and would provide some opportunities not available in public schools. He and other proponents, while praising private options, offered no studies on whether students had been helped by private school transfers. The experience in Louisiana showed many students did worse in the sub-par private schools that profited from the program there.

Bragg said school superintendents were driving the opposition.

Arkansas Advocates for Children and Families issued this statement in opposition that covered ground superintendents and other opponents made or wanted to make:

We have four major concerns with this bill. Our top concern is that it contains a provision that could lead to uncontrollable and unaccountable growth in the program, placing a drain on the state budget. HB 1371 automatically increases the size of the program by 25% every year it meets its budget limits. If this provision is fully used, this $10 million program will cost the state nearly $100 million per year within 10 years, over $284 million annually by year 15, and over $867 million annually by year 20. In contrast, Arkansas’s increase in much more effective public-school resources has averaged less than 2% annually over the past 5 years.

Over time, this provision will drain valuable resources away from other key priorities in the state budget for children and families, including public education, child welfare, juvenile justice, health care, pre-school education, just to name a few. This drain on the state budget becomes even more problematic given that, unlike public schools, private schools have little or no public transparency about how effectively or fairly they are educating our children. This, in turn, reduces the ability of policymakers and taxpayers to hold them accountable for how our public tax dollars are being used.

Our second concern is that this bill prioritizes an education strategy – private school vouchers – that is NOT supported by the research and evidence about what works to improve educational outcomes. Vouchers do not improve educational outcomes for students who receive them, especially for groups of students including students of color, English Language Learners, and special education students. At the same time, they lower outcomes for everyone else remaining in the public education system by draining valuable resources. We believe these resources could be better spent by allocating more money for research-based programs that we know work – out of school programs like summer programs and afterschool programs, already underfunded programs for special education students, quality pre-k, and well-qualified teachers.

Given the current COVID-19 pandemic and its impact on the education system, we also question the wisdom of expanding vouchers while we are still in the middle of the crisis and have not yet assessed what our schools and students will need to recover. This is especially true for groups that anecdotal evidence suggests have lost more ground during the pandemic, including special education students, children of color, English Language Learners, and students lacking high speed online access in their homes. Until we do that assessment, expanding an unproven strategy like private school vouchers is especially problematic.

Finally, expanding the use of private school vouchers also violates a sacred principle of our constitutional obligation to educate all students – the principle of equity. Public schools have to meet the needs of all students who attend public school, regardless of their needs. Private schools are under no such obligation or duty. Under this act, for example, they are not required to follow the Americans with Disabilities Act. This allows them to use our public tax dollars to refuse services, or not provide them sufficiently, to children with special needs. This is inequitable and morally indefensible.