Tax credit-funded scholarships bill barely passes House panel

by Steve Brawner ([email protected]) 256 views 

A bill that would provide a tax credit for Arkansans who donate to nonprofit organizations paying for private school scholarships narrowly passed the House Education Committee after the chairman changed how he planned to vote on it.

House Bill 1371 by Rep. Ken Bragg, R-Sheridan, passed 11-9 after the chairman, Rep. Bruce Cozart, R-Hot Springs, voted for it, explaining, “I’m going to give it a chance to go to the floor.” Cozart later said he otherwise had planned to vote no.

Voting for the bill were Cozart, Bragg, and Reps. Stephen Meeks, R-Greenbrier; Mark Lowery, R-Maumelle; Richard Womack, R-Arkadelphia; Charlene Fite, R-Van Buren; Rick Beck, R-Center Ridge; Karilyn Brown, R-Sherwood; DeAnn Vaught, R-Horatio; Gayla McKenzie, R-Gravette; and Brian Evans, R-Cabot.

Voting no were Reps. Fred Love, D-Mabelvale; Reginald Murdock, D-Marianna; Gary Deffenbaugh, R-Van Buren; Nelda Speaks, R-Mountain Home; John Maddox, R-Mena; Steve Hollowell, R-Forrest City; Lee Johnson, R-Greenwood; Megan Godfrey, D-Springdale; and Stu Smith, R-Batesville.

The roll call came after Cozart initially ruled the bill passed on a voice vote.

The bill 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.

Four million dollars would go to private school scholarships of about $7,000 per year for 571 students. The other $6 million could go to public schools 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.

Bragg said the bill was not meant to pit public schools against private schools. Instead, its purpose is to provide opportunities for a small number of lower-income students to attend schools that better meet their needs.

“There will always be those children who are square pegs being forced into a round hole, and all we’re trying to do here is find that square hole for them,” he said in his closing remarks.

He said it would involve roughly one-tenth of one percent of the state’s public school students. According to the Division of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE), 473,004 students are enrolled in K-12 public schools during the 2020-21 school year.

Bragg told the committee the fiscal impact study had shown a total cost of $898,472 with 13 people hired by DESE and the Department of Finance and Administration. However, Bragg said a similar program in Louisiana serving far more students is managed by one person.

DESE is neutral regarding the bill. Among those speaking against it were Carol Fleming with the Arkansas Education Association, Springdale School District Superintendent Dr. Jared Cleveland, and Bryant School District Superintendent Dr. Karen Walters.

Cleveland, who leads the state’s largest district, said the bill would divert public money to private schools that are not as accountable as public schools and don’t have to provide the same services, such as special education and support for students with dyslexia.

“I really don’t want to see public schools look like public housing in the future,” he said.

Representatives of the Arkansas Association of Educational Administrators and Arkansas School Boards Association were signed up to speak against the bill, but time ran out before they could.

In other business, the committee sent to the full House Senate Bill 107 by Sen. Jane English, R-North Little Rock, which would would require all public high school students to earn a unit of credit in a Department of Education-approved high school computer science course before the student graduates, beginning with the entering ninth grade class of 2022-23. The computer science class could replace a fourth-year math class, a physical science class, or a career-focused course.

In response to a question by Meeks, Anthony Owen, DESE’s director of computer science, said the state’s cadre of qualified computer science teachers has grown from 50 to more than 550.

Committee members also advanced House Bill 1614 by Cozart, which would provide extra funding for teacher salaries for school districts with average rates below the state’s targeted average salary of $51,822.

The bill would create a new funding category dedicated to salaries that would be equal to $185 multiplied by the school district’s average daily membership.

Lawmakers also advanced House Bill 1677 by Cozart, which would set school funding amounts. Per pupil foundation funding would increase from $7,018 in 2020-21 to $7,182 in 2021-22 and $7,349 in 2022-23.

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