Legislation filed for $10 million school voucher program | Arkansas Blog

Wednesday, January 18, 2017

Legislation filed for $10 million school voucher program

Posted By on Wed, Jan 18, 2017 at 5:50 PM

click to enlarge REP. JIM DOTSON: Files bill to allow $10 million a year in vouchers for private and on-line schooling.
  • REP. JIM DOTSON: Files bill to allow $10 million a year in vouchers for private and on-line schooling.
The legislation to vastly expand transfer of state tax dollars to private schools came before the school choice day event I mentioned earlier.

Today, a group of Republican legislators — 20 in the House, three in the Senate and most from Northwest Arkansas, led by Rep. Jim Dotson of Bentonville and Sen. Bart Hester, also of Benton County (incidentally home to the pro-voucher/charter/etc. Walton Family Foundation introduced legislation to create a mechanism to transfer tax dollars to private schools.

They don't call it a voucher program. And of course it has a euphemistic PR title: The Arkansas Parental Empowerment for Education Choice Act.

It allows taxpayers to claim a direct tax credit for contributions to nonprofit organizations that would pay for private school expenses for qualifying children, up to $10 million worth a year. That would be $10 million out of the state treasury and transferred to private schools. This credit would even be available to corporate taxpayers. It would appear the Walton-controlled Walmart, for example, could direct taxes away from general welfare and into solely non-public schools. The law makes clear that the money could NOT go to conventional public schools except for certain contracted services, such as extracurricular activities. (Kid might want to play football, after all.)

In theory, the money would be awarded by lottery, with preference for poor children. The charter school lottery experience in Little Rock has often produced beneficiaries less poor than the school district in which the schools operate.

Unlike the proposed income tax cut for poor people, which wouldn't take effect until at least January 2019, this program would take effect immediately.

I've given only a quick and dirty summary of a complicated 17-page bill. But it shapes up as another body blow to public education. Many years ago, Gov. Asa Hutchinson was opposed to school voucher programs and a defender of public schools.We'll soon see if times have changed. He speaks often of his admiration for "school choice."

The bill says the money may go to a nonpublic school or online learning (virtual schools, where operators make big profits absent facilties and big staffs to maintain). It contains no standards for  recipients of the money, except to say that the curriculum and education plan of private schools are NO business of the state.

The education savings account gimmick is spreading around the country. Here's a neutral rundown from the National Conference of State Legislatures. You'll also hear more in days ahead about disastrous results in other states, where money poured into terrible private schools. Here, for example, is a report on the failed Louisiana voucher program, geared to deliver benefits to poor students.

Public school advocates in Arkansas probably can be expected to oppose this legislation, but they have been losing power to the might of Walton money (also supported by other wealthy Arkansans, including the owner of the state's dominant newspaper, which will likely thunder editorially in favor of the idea.)

Understand that schools aren't the only losers. The $10 million goes straight to private schools (and each child that leaves a public school district costs that district about $6,600 in state support.) But only about half the state budget goes to education. The other half of the lost money, or $5 million, must be accommodated elsewhere.

This is proposed on a year when the state is already absorbing income tax cuts and plans to do more; when it is for the first time sending general revenue  to highways and against a backderop of the uncertain status of federal support for health care.

The fight SHOULD be broader than pitting the Billionaire Boys Club and their acolytes against school superintendents and the teachers union. But it might not be. Just this week, a Walton-funded lobby had at least three paid lobbyists in the room of a committee meeting discussing a bill unrelated to education. And there are more — not to mention a well-funded grassroots agency — where they came from.

The state currently has a small voucher program supposed to help children with disabilities attend private schools and it has already been demonstrated as flawed. Some participating private schools apparently can't — or won't — serve students with the greatest needs because they are expensive. Those students, and students who can't speak English and students from families so broken they are unlikely to be aware of an education savings account program are left to, of course, the public schools.

PS — This legislation is straight from the ALEC bill factory, the conservative outfit that rights cookie cutter agenda legislation for passage in states.





The lack of accountability in the Arkansas legislation is stunning. Some states require testing. Is it constitutional to ship public money to a religious school or to a school not providing the constitutionally required equal and suitable education? Are disabled students treated fairly? Lots of questions to come.

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