Arkansas Plan To Send State Dollars To Private Schools Advancing In Amended Form

Mar 14, 2017

State Rep. Jim Dotson (R-Bentonville).
Credit Brian Chilson / Arkansas Times

A scaled back education bill to create a voucher-like program – which channels public dollars to private schools through individual education savings accounts- is headed to the Arkansas House floor. On Tuesday a legislative committee approved the amended bill, which was sent back down from the full chamber earlier in the week.

Instead of a permanent system it’ll be a four-year pilot program. The amended bill also pares back the state’s investment from $6.5-million in tax credits a year, to $3-million.

State Representative Jim Dotson, a Republican from Bentonville, sponsored the bill. He said he welcomes the “major modifications” to his bill.

“This is as tight a program as you can possibly have developed before it is in operation,” said Dotson. “I was very welcoming of the governor’s amendment to ensure that this cannot get out of hand with a pilot program.”

But fellow Republican state Representative James Sturch said he was still concerned that the amended bill could have runaway affects. He objected to the proposal creating the potential for an up to 5-percent annual loss in students from public school districts – an additional, uncalculated cost. Five non-profits would be launched to facilitate the transfer state money from parents to private schools.

Dotson replied that he doubts the $3-million cap would allow for that large of a transfer out of public schools.

Other opponents were critical of public dollars going to help existing private school students pay for the schools they already attend. Dotson contended he’d appropriately addressed the issue with safeguards.

“It will probably have more applicants that are non-public school students but they’ll be limited in scope with a two to one ratio,” he said. “ If it was fully funded…you’re talking about 694 potential education savings accounts…462 would have to be authorized from a public school before it’d open up the rest of those accounts.”

Opponents of several measures to increase the state’s support of private education, such as the Citizens First Congress organization, say this bill could lead to state dollars funding segregated private schools and institutions that don’t disclose educational information to the public. It says a better investment would be in a the state's pre-K system.

Part of the statement from CFC:

“There is not enough data collection in the bill to conduct an adequate impact assessment of the pilot. To truly assess the impact of the pilot, and know if the state's $3 million investment is worth it, you would need to collect pre- and post- voucher testing so you could measure performance over time against a baseline population.

You would also need to gather income and demographic data to ensure the dolllars are not going disproportionately to wealthy families, which we think they will, and the program is not further segregating our student population by race and ability, which we also think will be an outcome.

If the voucher program is going to receive state dollars - any nonprofit or school accessing the dollars should be subject to the full FOIA laws that normally accompanies public dollars so the public can have faith that tax dollars are being managed well and for the public good.”