Sen. Blake Johnson (R-Corning, file photo) Brian Chilson

On Thursday, the Arkansas Senate passed a bill that would create a $3 million voucher-like program allowing K-12 students to receive scholarships for use at private schools. Senate Bill 539 was approved by a vote of 21-10, with two senators voting “present” — the equivalent of a “no” — and two not voting. It now heads to a House committee.

SB 539 is one of two bills by Sen. Blake Johnson (R-Corning) that aim to steer public money to private schools. Last week, Governor Hutchinson endorsed the other measure, Senate Bill 620, which would create a school voucher program limited to students from low-income homes in Pulaski County.

Voucher opponents expected the Pulaski-focused proposal to come up for a vote in the Senate Education committee on Wednesday. They were caught off guard when Johnson instead presented the other bill, SB 539, in a different committee, Senate Revenue and Taxation.

“We were expecting a different bill,” Tracey-Ann Nelson, the executive director of the Arkansas Education Association, said after the Wednesday meeting. “We were all ready to talk directly about the impact of that legislation, SB 620, on the families and students in Pulaski County. I believe there wasn’t support for it and therefore they went for a different method.” The AEA, which represents the state’s public school teachers, opposes both bills.

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After the Wednesday committee vote, Hutchinson said he endorsed both proposals. “I fully support the passage of a school choice demonstration project this session, be it SB 620 or SB 539,” he said in an emailed statement. “My preference is for SB 620 and the Pulaski County option, but we will see which bill receives the most consensus from the legislature. Right now there are two options for the General Assembly to consider.”

The abrupt shift appeared to catch some legislators and others off guard as well. One state budget official told the Revenue and Tax committee on Wednesday that he had “signed up to speak against the bill, but based upon further instruction from the governor’s office, we are supportive of this bill.” The bill easily passed out of committee.

The Pulaski voucher bill has attracted substantial local opposition since it was introduced last week, including from Little Rock Mayor Frank Scott, several Little Rock city directors and the superintendents of all four public school districts in the county. Its fate is now uncertain. Johnson told the committee Wednesday that he didn’t intend to bring the Pulaski bill up for a vote if the statewide bill passed.

The statewide bill, SB 539, resembles legislation that failed to pass the legislature in 2017. It would allow individuals or corporations to claim a state income tax credit for contributions made to a “student support organization,” a type of nonprofit established by the bill. A total of $3 million in tax credits could be claimed in a given year, meaning the bill would reduce state revenue by the same amount.

The student support organization would use the donations to fund scholarships for certain eligible students, to be awarded on a first-come, first-served basis. The scholarships could not exceed the state’s baseline per-student funding amount for public schools, which will be $6,883 in the 2019-20 school year.

The scholarships would be used to pay for education expenses — including tuition, fees, uniforms, textbooks, tutoring and transportation — at a private school approved by the state Education Department. Private schools can be approved only if they meet certain criteria, including accreditation.

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Before Thursday’s Senate vote, Senator Joyce Elliott (D-Little Rock) thanked Johnson for dropping his Pulaski voucher bill in favor of SB 539. But, she added, she opposed the statewide proposal as well. The bill would “pick and choose which kids have this opportunity or that opportunity,” she said, rather than providing opportunities to all children by funding broader needs.

“We have not funded pre-K as we should. We have not funded afterschool programs. We just had a discussion about our [school] facilities,” Elliott said. “Can we not spend our money more wisely?”

Though SB 539 contains a provision that indicates participating private schools should not discriminate on the basis of race, color or national origin, it does not specify what other factors a school can or cannot consider, such as religion, sexual orientation or academic performance.

“Are public schools allowed to discriminate which kids can be enrolled in public schools?” Elliott asked Johnson.

“No ma’am,” he replied. “We educate all, and that’s the greatness of our public education system, and I support that 100 percent.”

“If we are going to find a way to expend public funds on private schools … shouldn’t we be able to say the same thing just as forcefully as you said about public schools?” she asked.

“This is a choice for the parents,” Johnson said. He said he didn’t think private schools would discriminate against students.

Sen. Linda Chesterfield (D-Little Rock) said she was also concerned about discrimination. Some private schools in Arkansas were set up decades ago to cater to white parents seeking to avoid desegregation, she noted. “They still exist in this state. Monies could go to them as well,” she said.

“And, also, on gender — because if the school is a religious school that discriminates against LGBTQ students, they don’t have to take those kids. We’ve got to consider all of the children,” she continued.

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Sen. Jane English (R-North Little Rock) spoke in favor of SB 539. “I think this is a good bill. I think what it does is it’s another tool in the toolbox for parents across the state in Arkansas that have an interest in determining the education for their own students,” she said.

English said she was not concerned about discrimination from participating schools. “These schools would be from a list that the Department of Education provides. So it isn’t just an indiscriminate list … . The Department of Education is not going to put any school on a list that discriminates against people,” she said.

Senate Democrats were unified in their opposition to SB 539, but a few Republicans joined them in voting “no” or “present.” The bill has been assigned to the House Education committee.

This reporting is courtesy of the Arkansas Nonprofit News Network, an independent, nonpartisan news project dedicated to producing journalism that matters to Arkansans. Find out more at arknews.org.