A bill creating a tax credit for donations to organizations providing private school scholarships for K-12 students narrowly passed the Arkansas House of Representatives Wednesday (April 21).
Senate Bill 680 passed 52-40 with 2 voting present after impassioned debate from both sides of the issue. It has already passed the Senate.
The Philanthropic Investment in Arkansas Kids Program Act creates a maximum $2 million in tax credits for donations to scholarship-granting organizations. The tax credits would be awarded to taxpayers on a first-come, first-serve basis.
The scholarships would go to students whose family incomes are no more than 200% of the federal poverty level. They could not exceed 80% of the previous school year’s foundation funding amount for K-8 students and 90% of the foundation funding amount for students in grades 9-12. The scholarships would be awarded by scholarship-granting organizations. Student test scores annually would be reported to an independent research organization.
Supporters have tried in the past several sessions to create similar programs but have failed to overcome opposition from public school leaders who fear the program could lead to a loss of funding for public schools. A similar effort, House Bill 1371 by Rep. Ken Bragg, R-Sheridan, failed earlier in the session, and this one arose late in the session. Unlike HB 1371, SB 680 does not include an escalation clause allowing the program to grow.
Bragg, the House co-sponsor of SB 680, said the program annually would serve about 250 students who need an education alternative but whose families could not afford private school scholarships. He said it’s a small program that is not meant to hurt public schools. He said public school funding wouldn’t be hurt by the loss of state revenues because schools are always funded first.
Numerous legislators spoke for and against the bill. Rep. Gary Deffenbaugh, R-Van Buren, a retired teacher and coach, said private schools don’t have oversight, don’t have requirements for teacher qualifications, and don’t have to meet other standards public schools have to meet. Rep. David Tollett, R-Lexa, the superintendent of the Barton-Lexa School District, said private schools don’t provide better outcomes and would use the scholarship money to recruit the best students and athletes. He said the program would expand to the detriment of public schools.
Rep. Mary Bentley, R-Perryvillle, said she received a private Christian education while growing up as the daughter of a single mother, and it had put her on the path to getting a college education.
House members also passed House Bill 1761 by Rep. Mark Lowery, R-Maumelle, which prohibits public schools’ curricula and activities from teaching that any race or ethnicity is superior, that an individual from a particular race or ethnicity is inherently racist, that any race or ethnicity should feel guilt or shame because or their race or ethnicity, and that the United States is systemically racist.
However, the bill also includes permissive language saying schools may promulgate policies for the bill’s implementation and to ensure parents are advised of policies. Lowery said an amendment will be added in the Senate that would state that if schools don’t create those policies, the rest of the law doesn’t apply.
Rep. Reginald Murdock, D-Marianna, spoke for the bill, saying it represented progress.
The bill passed 65-13 with 3 voting present.
House members also passed Senate Bill 450 by Sen. Missy Irvin, R-Mountain View, the Gender Integrity Reinforcement for Sports (GIRLS) Act, which allows the state’s attorney general to bring a cause of action against schools that allow males to participate in interscholastic, intercollegiate, or club sports that are expressly designated for females.
Rep. Tippi McCullough, D-Little Rock, said the bill was an act of bullying against transgender students. She said the Arkansas Activities Association and the NCAA have policies addressing the issue and warned the NCAA has threatened not to host championships in states lacking inclusive policies. Rep. Ashley Hudson, D-Little Rock, said the bill would be declared unconstitutional.
Rep. Jack Ladyman, R-Jonesboro, spoke for the bill, saying the state should make its own decisions and not base them on the wishes of national organizations and international companies.
The bill passed 74-17 with 1 voting present. It will go to the governor for signature or veto.