Editor’s note: This is the first in a series of articles focused on upcoming education issues that will be addressed by the 89th General Assembly.
Republican legislators are considering bills providing vouchers for students with special needs and establishing a private school scholarship tax credit. Another bill would take the approval process for new charter schools out of the hands of the State Board of Education.
Rep. Ann Clemmer (R-Benton), the House GOP point person on education, said the GOP has not reached consensus on the bills and is still crafting the legislation. Republicans control the House Education Committee, 11-9, and the Senate Education Committee, 5-3.
Clemmer said the vouchers for students with special needs are necessary because so many children are being diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder, and parents must find the right fit for them.
“A year wasted is a year lost, and a year you don’t necessarily get back, and I’d hate to think that the only people that can go to those schools are people that have resources,” she said.
Few private schools in Arkansas, especially in rural Arkansas, provide full-time services for students with special needs. However, Clemmer said more schools could open if a reliable source of funds were available.
She acknowledged that the bill will be difficult to pass. “Some people are very skeptical that we can ever get out of the weeds on it just because there are so many details, and let’s face it, we’ve got so many kids diagnosed,” she said.
Republicans also plan to offer a bill creating a tax credit for donations to organizations that offer private school scholarships. The value of the tax credit and who would be eligible are being discussed. For example, the credit might be focused on students in failing schools.
Rep. Debra Hobbs (R-Rogers) said some legislation is needed to give students in poorly performing schools a choice. “When I learned that we had some schools in need of improvement for nine years, that’s unacceptable,” she said. “That’s a generation of children that aren’t going to succeed.”
With the state’s Medicaid shortfall expected to dominate the funding discussion, extra money will not be available for schools, legislators said.
Sen. Eddie Cheatham (D-Crossett), a member of the Senate Education Committee, said he believes Democrats will oppose any efforts to expand vouchers. Sen. Joyce Elliott, (D- Little Rock), said she feared that the bills could hurt public schools by taking funds out of “an already strapped revenue coffer.”
The GOP also is considering legislation that would remove the authority for approving charter schools from the state Board of Education and give it to an “independent authorizer.”
Legislation passed in the 2011 session effectively did away with the cap on the state’s allowed number of charter schools. However, Republicans have been frustrated by what they see as the Board’s reluctance to increase the number quickly enough. “It’s almost like you’ve got a conflict of interest there with the State Board so ingrained in the public school system determining which charter schools are acceptable and not,” said House Majority Leader Bruce Westerman (R-Hot Springs).