Bills would provide tax credit scholarships, limit transgender athletes

by Steve Brawner ([email protected]) 435 views 

Bills that would provide a tax credit for Arkansans who donate to organizations that provide scholarships to public schools, allow schools to prohibit biological males from competing in girls’ sports, and require schools to create a process for parents to challenge educational materials are among those working their way through the legislative process.

Among the most attention-getting bills is House Bill 1371 by Rep. Ken Bragg, R-Sheridan, which would create the $10 million Arkansas Child Academic Opportunity Scholarship and Grant Act.

Donors would receive a 100% tax credit for donations made to eligible student support organizations approved by the Division of Elementary and Secondary Education. Of that $10 million, $6 million would go to public schools and $4 million would go to private school scholarships.

The bill would create a $4 million scholarship program providing about $7,000 per year for about 550 Arkansas students whose household incomes are at or below 200% of federal poverty guidelines, or $53,000 a year for a family of four. Also eligible would be students who have an individualized education program, come from active-duty military families, have had a parent killed in the line of duty, or are in foster care. Home school students are not eligible.

The money could be used for tuition and fees at approved private schools, courses in local public schools, and other educational expenses.

The bill also would provide up to $6 million in grants to student support organizations serving public school districts where at least 55% of students are eligible for free- or reduced-price meals. Grants could be used for technology enhancements, building upgrades, workforce training resources and other uses specified in the bill.

Donors could choose whether their money goes to support public or private schools but could not specify which school or student would benefit. Because the numbers are capped, theoretically a single large donor could be the only beneficiary of the tax credit.

The bill has 27 House co-sponsors and 14 Senate co-sponsors. Bragg is awaiting a fiscal impact study before running the bill in committee.

The bill is opposed by the Arkansas Association of Educational Administrators, which represents superintendents and others. Dr. Mike Hernandez, the association’s executive director, said his association “strongly” opposes any bill that could divert public funds to private schools.

Similar bills have failed in previous legislative sessions as opponents labeled them as voucher bills that would provide public money for a private education. Like those bills, Bragg said no money directly would go to a parent. This version adds the $6 million public school awards program in order to gain support, he said.

Bragg said the bill would offer choices to students who have dyslexia, are victims of bullying, or who need a different environment. It would provide lower-income families the same options available to wealthier families. He noted that only 0.1% of the student population would be able to take advantage of the private school scholarship.

“I think most people would agree one size doesn’t fit all,” he said. “A public school can’t be all things to all kids, and parents need a choice.”

Rep. Reginald Murdock, D-Marianna, one of three Democrats on the House Education Committee, told Arkansas PBS’s “Arkansas Week” that programs such as this divert resources from public schools. He said the bill would cause “segregation and separation” and that the focus should be on improving all schools.

Rep. Bruce Cozart, R-Hot Springs, the House Education Committee chair, said the bill is better than previous versions and that it has a “pretty good chance” of advancing past his committee, where 17 of the 20 members are Republicans. He said several committee members joined it for the purpose of voting for this bill. He said he did not know how it would do on the House floor.

Another bill that will attract attention is Senate Bill 354 by Sen. Missy Irvin, R-Mountain View, the Fairness in Women’s Sports Act. The bill would prohibit state government entities, licensing organizations, and athletic associations from taking adverse actions against schools that maintain separate sports based on gender. It would apply to public schools, private schools that play public schools, and intramural and club sports. Students and schools harmed by violations would be entitled to injunctive relief and monetary damages.

The bill is a response to transgender athletes competing against girls in other states. It is part of the legislative package proposed by the Republican Women Legislative Caucus and has 14 co-sponsors in the Senate and 30 in the House. Attorney General Leslie Rutledge has advocated for a companion bill, the Gender Integrity Reinforcement Legislation for Sports Act, or GIRLS Act.

Irvin said the GIRLS Act will focus more on the attorney general’s abilities to bring a course of action and will amend the judicial code, while the Fairness in Women’s Sports Act will amend the education code.

A proposed constitutional amendment, Senate Joint Resolution 16 by Sen. Alan Clark, R-Lonsdale, would also separate participation in school sports based on biological sex.

Another bill related to school sports, House Bill 1097 by Rep. Jim Wooten, R-Beebe, would require the Arkansas Activities Association to create separate conferences and playoff systems for public and private schools. Wooten said he filed the bill in response to requests from numerous people inside and outside of education, including superintendents, athletic directors, coaches and teachers. He said he is working to reach an agreement with the AAA and others.

Still to come is legislation setting school funding amounts that are based on a biennial adequacy report prepared by the House and Senate Education Committees. Included among those amounts is Gov. Asa Hutchinson’s proposed $2,000 average salary increase for teachers over the next two years. The Legislature in 2019 raised minimum teacher salaries from $31,800 to $36,000 by 2021.

Another bill by Cozart, and co-sponsored by Irvin, would require public school districts to develop policies regarding the rights of parents to challenge instructional materials. House Bill 1464, which is based on a model policy by the Arkansas School Boards Association, specifies that school boards would have the final authority regarding how to respond. The bill has passed the House Education Committee.

Cozart said the bill is a response to House Bill 1231 by Rep. Mark Lowery, R-Maumelle, which would prohibit schools from using the New York Times’ 1619 Project curriculum, and to Lowery’s House Bill 1218 that more generally limited instruction.

Another bill that could gain attention is Senate Bill 314 by Sen. Joyce Elliott, D-Little Rock, which would require school districts under state control to be returned to local control after no more than five years if they have a democratically elected school board. The bill has two co-sponsors in the Senate and six in the House. All are Democrats.

The GIRLS Act was filed March 2 as Senate Bill 450 and was referred to the Judiciary Committee. Irvin is the main sponsor while Rep. DeAnn Vaught, R-Horatio, is the House sponsor. Senate Bill 354, the Fairness in Women’s Sports Act, and Senate Bill 314, which is Elliott’s local school control bill, are listed as “special order of business” bills to be heard by the Senate Education Committee Monday, March 8.

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