Arkansas currently has one school choice program, a voucher program for students with disabilities. Senate Bill 746 would have established the Parental Choice Pilot Program, enabling private and corporate donors to receive a 65 percent tax credit for donations made to fund ESAs. ESAs grant parents access to a portion of the money allocated to their child’s public school education to spend on educational alternatives, such as private school tuition, learning therapies, tutoring, and homeschool textbooks.
SB 746 failed to garner enough votes in the House on the last day of March after passing the Senate earlier in the month, while a companion bill, House Bill 1222, was also defeated earlier in the month by the House.
School Choice ‘Is about Funding’
Jennifer Helms, president of Arkansans for Education Freedom, says school choice too often comes down to a matter of money.
“Arkansans for Education Freedom supports education choice, which we believe is the God-given right of parents to choose the type of education their child will receive – whether public, private, parochial, charter, or homeschool education – regardless of who pays for it,” Helms said. “School choice, on the other hand, is about funding. Who pays for the education and in what manner – is at the heart of the school choice movement we see happening across the country and in Arkansas.”
Sharon Martin, a homeschooling mother and wife of Arkansas Secretary of State Mark Martin, says parents should take an active role in education issues.
“I would like to see homeschoolers, and parents in general, be more aggressive on the issue of school choice,” Martin said. “I would like to see them take ownership of their rights and their tax dollars.”
School Choice a Contentious Issue
Helms says both sides of the school choice issue were passionate about this legislation.
“Republican legislators pushed hard for school choice,” Helms said. “Their public response to the failure of both bills have been personal and even emotional. They honestly want to do what they believe is good, right, and noble for the school children in our state.”
Helms says public school teachers and administrators who opposed the bills because they fear reduced public education spending have valid concerns.
“We have already seen legislation passed that would help to expand charters in Arkansas, and as charters grow, public schools will very likely shrink,” Helms said. “Their cries to protect public education from the threat of expanding charters were ultimately heard and the school choice bills were defeated.”
Eliminating Government Money
Martin says getting government out of the education system is a first step in solving many problems.
“I hear a lot of folks say, ‘I don’t want government money, because it will eventually come with government strings attached,'” said Martin. “The idea that it’s ‘government money’ is one I want to see eliminated. Obviously, this is an issue that goes way beyond school choice, but I would like to hear parents, homeschoolers, and taxpayers say, ‘Parents are in charge of their children’s education, and I will actively support candidates who agree and actively oppose those who do not.'”
Martin says she doesn’t like to see homeschoolers deny themselves and their kids access to resources out of fear of being caught up in government “strings” later.
“I would rather hear us saying, ‘We’re going to use what’s available, and we’re going to control our children’s education, and we’re going to work to elect candidates who understand that,'” Martin said.
Funding System Concerns
Helms says it’s likely the pilot ESA program would eventually acquire increased regulation.
“Although school choice in Arkansas might begin with ‘donations’ to ESAs rather than use of tax dollars for private and charter education – since this was intended to be a pilot program – I think it would eventually morph into a system in which tax dollars pay for that education,” Helms said.
Helms says when tax dollars are given to a charter school, public accountability is removed.
“Public schools have oversight from a locally elected school board. A charter school, on the other hand, doesn’t have oversight of a locally elected board,” said Helms. “That’s taxation without representation, something I deeply oppose.”
Martin says parents are key to preventing government and unelected bureaucrats from seizing control of their child’s education.
“When my husband was first elected to the legislature in 2004, the very notion we might pry a little away from government and give it to parents would have been laughable, Martin said. “I think we homeschoolers, parents, and conservatives have an opportunity to make it a little easier for kids to get whatever type of education meets their needs, and I’d like to see us get behind it and commit to keeping that control.”
Jenni White ([email protected]) writes from Oklahoma City, Oklahoma.