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Statewide Vouchers Bill Fails In Arkansas House

Lindsay Johnson
National Pubic Radio

Credit Lindsay Johnson / National Pubic Radio
National Pubic Radio

A bill to create educational savings accounts for Arkansas students failed in the Arkansas House today on a 46 to 39 vote Friday.

The so-called “Parental Choice Program,” SB 746, was not written to be a traditional vouchers program financed directly by the state. Instead it would have created non-profit organizations to funnel contributions from taxpayers and corporations to parents for their children’s school of choice. Donors to those organizations would get a 65 percent tax credit at an estimated $3 million annual cost to the state for three of a four-year pilot.

Bill sponsor Rep. Jim Dotson (R-Bentonville) says school choice forces public schools to compete with private ones, and competition always gives incentive for improvement. He also advocates for parental control.

It shifts "responsibility in education decision-making back to the person who knows them the best, their parent. This is the ultimate in local control.”

Public schools in Arkansas are funded on a per student basis. Under Dotson's plan, each student would be eligible for the same amount of money the state would otherwise give to her public school. That's called foundation funding, and it's set at $6,584.

Lawmakers acknowledged that some private schools in the state charge more than that baseline amount and would be out of reach for lower-income students.

In order to ensure the bill not be a giveaway to parents already paying to send children to private school, two students leaving a public school would be awarded the savings account for every one leaving a private school.


Rep. Jana Della Rosa (R-Rogers) spoke against the bill. She says such public money should be for public schools because they don’t cherry pick their students.  

“Regardless of how expensive they are. Regardless of how much help they need, regardless of the color of their skin. Regardless of the culture they come from. Regardless of whether they even speak English. They have to take everybody, and they have to work with it. Private schools don’t,” she said.  

A similar vouchers bill, HB1222, failed earlier in the session. It set no limits on duration of the program and would have allowed for 10 percent annual increases.

Rep. Charlotte Douglas (R-Alma) spoke for the bill.

“Do we allow public schools to remain the only option in town, or do we allow competition?”

House Education Committee Chair Bruce Cozart (R-Hot Springs) spoke against it. He says he’s not against school choice in theory but all education stakeholders should "come to the table" before passing such a vouchers bill.

Legislation to expand an existing special education vouchers program created in the 2015 session passed. It now allows all foster care kids to receive the Succeed Scholarship

This story is produced by Arkansas Public Media. What's that? APM is a nonprofit journalism project for all of Arkansas and a collaboration among public media in the state. We're funded in part through a grant from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, with the support of partner stations KUAR, KUAF, KASU and KTXK. And, we hope, from you! You can learn more and support Arkansas Public Media’s reporting at arkansaspublicmedia.org. Arkansas Public Media is Natural State news with context.

Copyright 2020 Arkansas Public Media. To see more, visit Arkansas Public Media.

Sarah Whites-Koditschek is a reporter and anchor for KUAR 89.1.