Gov. Asa Hutchinson defended a Senate bill Monday (March 25), that would provide vouchers for about 500 students to attend private schools. Earlier, Sen. Joyce Elliott, D-Little Rock, and other Democrats criticized the bill in a press conference. Republicans countered during their own press conference a short time later in the same room.
Senate Bill 620 by Sen. Blake Johnson, R-Corning, creates the Capitol Promise Scholarship. Beginning no later than the 2020-21 school year, the program would provide scholarships to about 500 K-12 students in Pulaski County to attend accredited private schools. The scholarships would be available for students who qualify for free and reduced price meals. The money would be awarded through eligible student support organizations.
Those who graduate high school with 2.5 grade point averages or better would be eligible for $5,000 scholarships to attend the University of Arkansas at Little Rock, Arkansas Baptist College, Philander Smith College, Pulaski Technical College, or Shorter College.
The five-year pilot program would be funded with $3.5 million annually from Hutchinson’s discretionary funds. The program would be developed by the Department of Education. School districts under full state authority – the Little Rock School District – would not lose state funding.
In a meeting with reporters in his office, Hutchinson said the bill creates a pilot program where the state can monitor the students’ progress.
“It’s hard for me to see anyone looking at this program and saying that this does not give good options for students and parents who want their students to have a good education,” he said. “It doesn’t compel anybody to leave the public schools. It doesn’t even incentivize them to leave the public schools. It just gives them a choice if they are in a school that doesn’t fit for their child, and then you can measure those statistics.”
Hutchinson had been doubtful of how voucher programs would work in Arkansas until the 2017 session. That year, he supported a failed bill that would have allowed tax credits for donations to nonprofits that would have funded education savings accounts, including for private and home schools.
He said he knew a school voucher bill would be filed this year. A previous version of the bill prepared by Johnson and House co-sponsor Rep. Ken Bragg, R-Sheridan, involved tax credits for a statewide program, but he said he wanted something more meaningful for students and with more accountability. Pulaski County, the state’s largest, was chosen because of its high number of eligible students, its mature private school market, and higher education options.
Earlier in the day, Democrats led by Sen. Joyce Elliott, D-Little Rock, held a press conference in the Capitol’s Old Supreme Courtroom to denounce the bill. Elliott said there was no need to have a pilot program because vouchers have been tried elsewhere, so the data already shows they wouldn’t work.
“We chase after every bright, shiny object we see,” she said. “No high-performing school district in the world conducts education the way the governor is proposing and much of the Legislature that we conduct education in Pulaski County. It’s as if we’ve become the petri dish for everything that is not working.”
Elliott said proponents of school vouchers have a strategy that begins with awarding scholarships to special needs students. In 2015, lawmakers created the Succeed Scholarship Program for students with disabilities. The bill passed the Senate 34-0, with Elliott voting yes, and passed the House 90-0, with one lawmaker voting present. The next step is to tailor vouchers to African-American students to get black legislators and black ministers on board, she said.
“That is the strategy to get into the business. I’m not about the business because schools are not businesses,” she said.
She said the pilot program was the latest social experiment in a history that includes the infamous Tuskegee study, where African-American men with syphilis were withheld penicillin treatments and then tracked.
“If you know anything about the experiments that were done on black bodies in Alabama, (and) the experiments that have been done over the years on black bodies because somebody in a high place decided it was a great idea, you might understand why we are so outraged about this,” she said.
In an interview afterward, Elliott related her own experiences as a child who attended segregated schools until high school, when she and others integrated a previously all-white school. After the first year, the administration told the black kids they could return to their old school. She was the only one to remain in her class.
“I know what it means to be plucked down into a school where there’s nobody there like me,” she said.
Asked about opposition to the bill, Hutchinson said, “I haven’t heard parents come to me and say, ‘We don’t want this choice for our children.’ Parents, if they have children that are in a poor performing school, I haven’t seen any parents that say, ‘We don’t want options.’” Hutchinson said he had met with legislators including Elliott prior to announcing the bill’s filing and heard their objections. Elliott said he did not listen to what they had to say.
Democrats held their press conference in the Old Supreme Courtroom on the Capitol’s second floor at 11 a.m. At 12:15, Republican officeholders held their own press conference led by Johnson and Bragg and also featuring remarks by Lt. Governor Tim Griffin and Attorney General Leslie Rutledge.
Bragg said of the bill, “There will always be those children who are somewhat like square pegs trying to fit in a round hole. They’re the ones that we need to find that square hole.”
Griffin said, “I can’t figure out a reason why people could oppose this, unless it is to preserve the status quo.”
Following are other topics covered by Hutchinson in his meeting with reporters.
• The governor said he believes funding for the Division of Medical Services will receive the three-fourths support in both the House and Senate it needs for passage. Funding for that division has been bogged down in some previous legislative sessions by opponents of Arkansas Works, which it administers. Arkansas Works is the state program that uses federal dollars to purchase private health insurance for lower-income Arkansans through the Affordable Care Act, otherwise known as Obamacare.
• Hutchinson said he remains neutral on Senate Bill 571 by Senate Majority Leader Jim Hendren, R-Sulphur Springs, which would enact almost $100 million in cigarette and e-cigarette taxes while providing the same amount of tax cuts for lower- and middle-income Arkansans. Hutchinson said he would support a tax on e-cigarette products.
• He expressed support for House Bill 1684 by Rep. Dan Douglas, R-Bentonville, which would apply in-state college tuition rates to undocumented immigrants protected under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) policy. Hutchinson said he based his support on the students having legal status in the country.