A bill that would have established a tax credit to create private school scholarships for 400 Arkansas students failed in committee Thursday (April 4).
Senate Bill 539 by Sen. Blake Johnson, R-Corning, failed 7-11 in the House Education Committee. It needed 11 votes to pass.
Rep. Ken Bragg, R-Sheridan, was the House sponsor and presented the bill to the committee. Afterwards, he said he would not present the bill again this session.
The bill would have allowed $3 million in tax credits for donations to eligible student support organizations to administer the Arkansas Tax Credit Scholarship.
The scholarship would have been available to students whose family incomes were no more than 1.5 times the amount that would qualify a student for free or reduced-price meals under the National School Lunch Act.
It also would have been available to students with disabilities, to those whose parents are in the military or who had been killed in the line of duty, or those who are in or have been in foster care. Bragg said it would serve about 400 students.
The scholarships could not have exceeded per pupil foundation funding amounts currently provided to public schools. In 2018-19, that amount was $6,781 per student.
The money could have been used for qualifying expenses including tuition, fees, required uniforms, textbooks, tutoring services, therapy sessions and transportation.
The bill specified that nonpublic schools receiving funding from the scholarships were not agents of the state, and their curricula would not have been subject to the State Board of Education’s regulatory authority.
“The basis behind this bill is we believe each child in this state should have an opportunity to receive an appropriate education that fits his or her individual needs regardless of their income or the neighborhood in which they live,” Bragg said in presenting the bill.
The issue split the committee’s 15 Republicans. Seven voted against the bill. Those were Reps. Gary Deffenbaugh, R-Van Buren, a retired teacher and coach; Jon Eubanks, R-Paris; Jana Della Rosa, R-Rogers; Nelda Speaks, R-Mountain Home; DeAnn Vaught, R-Horatio; Frances Cavenaugh, R-Walnut Ridge; and Brian Evans, R-Cabot, a Cabot School Board member.
Republicans voting for the bill were Reps. Stephen Meeks, R-Greenbrier; Mark Lowery, R-Maumelle; Jim Dotson, R-Bentonville; Grant Hodges, R-Rogers; Rick Beck, R-Center Ridge; Dan Sullivan, R-Jonesboro; and Mickey Gates, R-Hot Springs.
Four of the committee’s five Democrats voted against the bill: Rep. John Walker, D-Little Rock; Rep. LeAnne Burch, D-Monticello; Rep. Fred Allen, D-Little Rock; and Rep. Denise Garner, D-Fayetteville.
The committee’s chairman, Rep. Bruce Cozart, R-Hot Springs, and vice chairman, Rep. Reginald Murdock, D-Marianna, did not vote.
The bill was one of two private school scholarship programs proposed this session by Johnson and Bragg. The other, Senate Bill 620, would have created the Capitol Promise Scholarship program, a five-year program using $3.5 million from the governor’s discretionary funds to allow about 500 students in Pulaski County to attend private schools. The sponsors decided instead to focus on Senate Bill 539. The session is set to recess next Friday, April 12.
Among the no voters, Burch said it represented a statement by the state that private schools are better than public schools. When Allen asked if the bill would weaken the public school system, Bragg said he wouldn’t have presented it if it did. He later said his wife is a retired schoolteacher. Walker pointed out that some private schools have academic standards that would restrict participation by students who don’t qualify. Bragg said those schools may not participate. Garner said many areas of the state with a population of qualified students don’t have private schools. Bragg said options would be available in cities.
Vaught told Bragg that parents who send their children to a private school in her district had expressed concerns that the bill would open the door to state involvement in their school. Bragg said the money comes from private donations and wouldn’t affect a school’s curriculum.
Gates, who voted yes, said the concerns expressed about the bill were related to the institution instead of the students and called it a “brave new step, so to speak, for Arkansas.”
In other business, the committee concurred with a Senate amendment to House Bill 1684 by Rep. Dan Douglas, R-Bentonville. It would allow state-supported colleges and universities to grant in-state tuition to undocumented immigrants who participate in the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program.
The students must have lived in Arkansas at least three years and graduated from an Arkansas high school or received an equivalency diploma in this state.