Will a new governor and shifting Legislature mean the expansion of school choice in Arkansas?

By: - December 30, 2022 7:00 am

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A new governor and turnover in the state Legislature have proponents hopeful for the expansion of school-choice programs in the state during the 2023 legislative session.

A coalition of Democrats and Republicans from mostly rural areas have blocked numerous school voucher bills in committee in past sessions.

No legislation has been filed, but in interviews, influential members of the House and Senate education committees said they expect proposals to expand the state’s current school-choice programs, which cater to a limited number of low-income families and those with disabilities. 

Some also hinted that legislation could be introduced to create a universal voucher program, open to all students.

What are school voucher programs? 

Traditional voucher programs allow families to take tax dollars and put them towards tuition at private schools. Usually, the voucher amount is similar to the amount of per-student spending at public schools (Typically, between $10,000-$11,000 in Arkansas, according to the U.S. Department of Education). 

Most voucher programs are limited to certain student populations, like those with special needs or who live in low-rated school districts, for instance. 

Arkansas has two voucher programs. 

The Succeed Scholarship Program provides about $7,400 for private tuition for students with disabilities, foster children and military families.

The program has about $6.3 million in funding for fiscal 2023, which began July 1.

The Philanthropic Investment in Arkansas Kids Scholarship Program provides private-school scholarships for students whose families make no more than 200% of the federal poverty level (about $55,000 a year for a family of four in Arkansas).

The scholarships are funded by tax-deductible contributions from business and individuals. The program is capped at $2 million.

Specifics remain unknown as most members await an education reform package from Arkansas Gov.-elect Sarah Huckabee Sanders. Sanders made education — including school choice — a pillar of her gubernatorial campaign.

State Rep. Bruce Cozart (R-Hot Springs) is the longtime chairman of the House Education Committee, but he said he will not seek the post during the 94th General Assembly in 2023.

Rep. Bruce Cozart (R-Hot Springs) leaves the House chambers during the August special session at the Arkansas State Capitol in Little Rock. (Dwain Hebda/Arkansas Advocate)

He noted that turnover on both education committees has made them friendlier to school-choice bills. Cozart supports programs that allow families to switch public schools, but he opposes allowing the use of public dollars on private school tuition.

“They probably will,” Cozart said when asked if school-choice expansion proposals would fare better in 2023 than in past sessions. “I can’t tell you 100%. But it’s on the new governor’s agenda and some of the new reps coming in and some reps that have switched over to the Senate.”

Asked if school-choice legislation would be a priority for Sanders’ administration, spokesman Judd Deere provided a statement.

“Governor-elect Sanders intends to work with the legislature and unleash bold, conservative education reforms — AR LEARNS — to expand quality education across Arkansas, empower parents, and ensure that kids are placed on a path to prosperity, not government dependency,” Deere said, referring to the Sanders campaign’s education priorities: literacy, empowerment, accountability, readiness, networking and safety.

 

Gov.-elect Sarah Huckabee Sanders (John Sykes/Arkansas Advocate)

During the campaign, Sanders said she wanted to “empower” parents to keep children from becoming trapped in “failing” schools.

Voucher programs are controversial in Arkansas and across the country. Tennessee’s voucher program, for instance, is mired in litigation and criminal allegations.

In Arkansas, the fights around vouchers have been more philosophical. 

Proponents believe voucher programs offer flexibility to families who haven’t been able to afford to send their children anywhere other than their local public school. Further, the local public school may not always be the best place for every student, they say.

Opponents, meanwhile, say voucher programs take away per-student funding from public schools, sending public money to private institutions that aren’t held to the same level of accountability and standards.

Arkansas’ newest voucher program, the Philanthropic Investment in Arkansas Kids Scholarship Program, eeked through the House in 2021 after earlier failed efforts. Because the legislation created tax credits, it was assigned to the House Revenue and Taxation Committee, avoiding the Education Committee where it would’ve faced more opposition.

That program, now in its first year, is capped at $2 million and only available to about 250 students whose family incomes are less than 200% of the federal poverty level.

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Laurie Lee, chairman of the Reform Alliance, which administers the Philanthropic Scholarship and Succeed Scholarship, said she’s hopeful for the expansion of both programs to more families with a new Legislature and governor. 

“We’re hoping that’s what happens,” she said. “Nobody can tell of course until it does.”

“We’re excited there’s a governor in Arkansas who is student-focused.”

So far, Arkansas’ voucher programs have been limited by funding caps and eligibility guidelines, but there are rumors that some legislators may propose a more universal voucher program similar to Arizona’s.

State Rep. Jim Dotson (R-Bentonville) has been one of the most vocal proponents of school choice in the Legislature, and he was elected to the state Senate in November.

Rep. Jim Dotson (R-Bentonville)

He pointed to Arizona’s program, and he also suggested Arkansas’ next step could be the creation of an education savings account program. ESAs are tax-exempt accounts that can be used for education costs, like tuition, textbooks, tutoring, testing, etc.

“Will it pass?” Dotson said of school-choice legislation generally. “There’s a lot of momentum. Just have to see if it translates into votes once a bill is actually filed.” 

House Education Committee Vice Chairman Rep. Brian Evans (R-Cabot) said he thinks there will be some different school-choice proposals offered next year compared to past sessions, but most are in a holding pattern for now.

“I think by now, normally, we’d hear members talking about various items they’d want to run as bills in the session,” Evans said. “I think there is awareness of a reform package from the governor-elect, and members want to make sure they’re not going in a different direction that will be in direct conflict with that.”

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Hunter Field
Hunter Field

Hunter Field is a veteran Arkansas journalist whose reporting on the state has carried him from military air strips in northwest Arkansas to soybean fields in the Arkansas delta. He spent the better part of the last decade investigating and reporting on Arkansas government and politics. For three years, he covered education policy, medical marijuana and the Arkansas General Assembly as part of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette’s Capitol Bureau. Most recently, he was the Democrat-Gazette's projects editor, leading the newspaper's investigative team. Hunter got his start in journalism covering sports for The Commercial Appeal in Memphis. A Memphis native, he enjoys smoking barbecue, kayaking and fishing in his free time.

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