Why not a straight voucher bill? Here's a clue. | Arkansas Blog

Sunday, March 12, 2017

Why not a straight voucher bill? Here's a clue.

Posted By on Sun, Mar 12, 2017 at 9:28 AM

click to enlarge WHY THE MIDDLE MAN: Good question from Rep. Jana Della Rosa on pending school voucher bill. - BRIAN CHILSON
  • WHY THE MIDDLE MAN: Good question from Rep. Jana Della Rosa on pending school voucher bill.

During debate on the bill to funnel $6.5 million a year of tax money into private schools in Arkansas, one Republican representative asked a good question that sponsor Rep. Jim Dotson didn't answer very directly.

Why not eliminate the middleman and have a direct school voucher program? Why go through the bill's money laundering. It provides for o-called education savings accounts, in which tax-free non-profits are set up; rich people make contributions to them for which they get credits and tax deductions sufficient to wholly pay for their contributions, and then students apply to the nonprofits to get the money? (No certification for school recipients is required and much of the process will be shrouded in the veil of privacy that is extended to a tax-free nonprofit, versus the government.)

Background on the groundbreaking establishment of just such a "savings account/tax credit" program in Florida from the League of Women voters there, via Diane Ravitch, helps explain what the ESAs are about:

In 2006, the Florida Supreme Court ruled that vouchers paid by the treasury were unconstitutional. Florida corporate tax credits (FTC) became the vehicle to fund what initially were private school scholarships for children from disadvantaged families.
It's not certain that the Arkansas Constitution explicitly bans an award of tax money to a religious school, many of which will likely benefit if this program is established. But doing it this way sidesteps the question conclusiviely. Note that, in Arkansas, the vouchers are not restricted to poor children. Students already attending private school (that is able to afford them already) will qualify for the state to step in and pay their tuition.

Here's the exchange last week on the Arkansas bill.

Rep. Jana Della Rosa (R-Rogers) asked Dotson, "Why do it this way? This seems like we’re putting in a whole middleman that's going to have administrative costs, that is convoluting the system. We're going to have more reporting, [the Department of Finance and Administration] is going to have more to mess with, you've got tax credits. Why don’t we just expand the Succeed Scholarship?"

The Succeed Scholarship is a voucher program enacted in 2015 that uses public tax dollars to pay for students with special needs to attend private schools. The program is capped at 100 vouchers.

Dotson said, "I studied various models all across the country. This is the plan I came up with. I would support that as well. I would love to see that happen."

Note, the Florida program started as a small program nominally to benefit the disadvantaged. It's grown to $500 million a year in tax money to private schools.

Shortcomings in Florida's FTC program likely to be replicate here (though we may never know because the Arkansas bill contains so little in the way of accountability)
• FTC private schools are exempt from state teacher certification requirements and curriculum standards. Children are not required to take Florida State Assessments.

• According to a Florida Department of Education report, while ten percent of FTC students gained more than twenty percentile points on a nationally normed test, fourteen percent lost more than twenty percentile points.

• Students who struggle the most academically tend to return to public schools. These students perform less well than other lunch subsidized public school students who never participated in the FTC program. The Department of Education researchers state that the data they were able to collect over represents white, female and higher income children. Thus, the achievement of all FTC students is likely even lower than reported.

• FTC scholarships are not limited to Florida’s poor families. Current income guidelines for a family of four are $48,600 for a full scholarship of $5,886 and $63,180 for a partial scholarship.

• Private schools that accept Florida Tax Credit (FTC) scholarships enroll more Hispanics (38%) than black students (30%).

• Eighty-two percent of FTC students attend religious schools.

• The FTC program does not target struggling public schools. Only twenty-five percent of FTC students are from public schools that had ‘D’ or ‘F’ school grades.
No income limits exist in bill to give Arkansas tax money to Arkansas private schools.

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