The Arkansas House Education Committee voted to have an interim committee study a school voucher bill rather than pass it directly.
At a large rally at the state capitol on the day of the vote, organized by Arkansas Parents for School Choice, attendees sported bright yellow and blue t-shirts. Bill sponsor Rep. Randy Alexander (R-Fayetteville) addressed them, saying, “Taxpayer funds—public funds—come from you. It’s your money. They’re your kids. Parent choice is important. Parent choice can make a difference. We’re not here to attack any particular form of education. But we would be naïve if we believed that within every form of education every school provided an outstanding education.”
House Bill 1897 would have allowed eligible students to direct 92 percent of state K-12 per-pupil funding, or $6,267 per student, to a participating school, be it public, charter, magnet, alternative, or private. If the Parental Choice Scholarship Program Act had been approved, a pilot initiative would have begun in fall 2014. Students in grades 4-8 and enrolled in schools that had 1,000 students or more could have participated in the pilot.
Alexander proposed the legislation, in part, to address the lagging academic performance of Arkansas students in comparison with pupils in other states. As he pointed out in the bill and during the April committee hearing, Education Week has given Arkansas a grade of ‘A-‘ for funding but a ‘D’ on K-12 student achievement for the past five years.
Famous Father Weighs In
Former Arkansas state representative Jim Bob Duggar, star of the TLC television show “19 Kids and Counting,” agrees with Alexander.
“Back when the phone companies had a monopoly, technology was stifled,” he told School Reform News. “Once competition was introduced, the open marketplace developed innovation [and] free enterprise spawned private investors and companies to rapidly outdo their competition, which eventually led to the creation of iPhones and smart phones.”
Duggar continued, “Allowing families to decide what education is best for their children will encourage a friendly competition that will inspire educators and families to make sure each child receives the best education possible.”
Debating HB 1897
During the committee hearing on HB 1897, Arkansas native and Black Alliance for Educational Options board member Virginia Walden Ford shared a personal anecdote about how school choice changed her family for the better. Several years ago her 13-year-old son, William, entered a public middle school “behind three grade levels … feeling inadequate.” But his life took a dramatic turn when he received unexpected help.
“Suddenly out of nowhere we were offered the opportunity to have tuition paid for him at any school that I chose,” she said. “Within weeks” at his new parochial school, her son began to thrive, Walden Ford said. Eventually he graduated valedictorian and served in the U.S. Marine Corps.
Conversely, Arkansas Commissioner of Education Tom Kimbrell worried private schools would not appreciate state intrusion.
“[The bill] says that the Department of Education would have to approve those [participating] schools,” Kimbrell said. “My friends that are private school operators tell me they don’t want me in their business. That’s an issue that is not defined in this law.”
Committee members also raised concerns about special-needs students, transportation funding, measureable assessments, and private school accreditation.
An Arkansas Democrat-Gazette editorial strongly supported the bill. The newspaper even took a shot at school boards and superintendents who oppose education reform: “Many of them act as though the state’s education dollars are a jobs program for teachers and staffs and administrators. Can we have lost sight of something here? Like the students and the best way to educate them?”
To Be Continued
Despite the setback, Arkansas school choice supporters remain positive. Arkansas Parents for School Choice posted this message on their Facebook page two days after the vote: “Although the bill did not successfully make it out of committee, we feel like we made a huge step forward in the advancement of school choice for the state of Arkansas.”
Image by University of Central Arkansas.