Bill for program to send poor kids to private schools stalls


LITTLE ROCK — Legislation proposing a tax break for contributions to a program set up to pay for some public school students to attend private school in Arkansas stalled in a Senate panel Wednesday.

The Senate Revenue and Taxation Committee vote was 3-2 on Senate Bill 577. The measure needed five votes to clear the eight-member committee.

SB 577 by Sen. Jane English, R-North Little Rock, would provide a 100 percent tax credit for individual and business contributions to a scholarship fund. English said the program would be run by a nonprofit organization with a goal of generating about $10 million annually to provide up to 2,500 scholarships valued at $4,000 each.

Parents earning up to 250 percent of the federal poverty level — amounting to $28,725 for an individual, $58,875 for a family of four — would be eligible for the scholarships, which would not be available to students who live in school districts with 1,000 or fewer students.

The state fiscal office estimated the fiscal impact of the bill would be about $10 million a year, though Gary Ritter, a professor of education and public policy at the University of Arkansas, said the scholarship program would actually save the state money.

Ritter said the state pays school districts $6,267 a year per student, a payment he said would be unnecessary if the student chooses to attend a private school.

Patrick Wolf , a professor in school choice and education reform in the UA College of Education and Health Professions, said he has studied similar programs in other states that he said have succeeded in improving student test scores.

Also, Wolf said, “There’s clear evidence that … public schools improved because of competition.”

Speaking against the bill, state Education Commissioner Tom Kimbrell noted the impact to state general revenue and said there is no guarantee that all private K-12 schools in the state would participate because the $4,000 scholarship tuition cap.

Kimbrell said the state school funding formula is based on a district’s enrollment from the previous year, meaning the district still would receive state funding the first year a student attended private school.

“So, those 2,500 students are still going to be generating that much money back to the school district the first year,” he said, adding it would be at least three years before the state would begin to see any savings.

“How many students will take advantage of this? How many of our private schools actually are going to step forward and say ‘I want to participate?’” Kimbrell said. “If you give that tax credit and people of the state took advantage of that income tax credit to the tune of $10 million and we did not have that many students who actually took advantage, or there weren’t that many private schools that actually accepted that many students, then you do have that loss of general revenue to the state.”

A lot of assumptions are being made, and a lot of questions still need to be answered, Kimbrell said.

Misty Newcomb, executive director of the Prism Education Center in Fayetteville, testified that the bill stipulates that the state Department of Education must immediately stop paying a district when a student receives a scholarship and transfers.

Newcomb, who said she has assisted lawmakers in trying get similar legislation passed for several years, said there are currently about 25,000 K-12 students attending private schools in Arkansas.

According to its website, Prism Education Center offers private school for students in kindergarten through eighth grade. Standard tuition is $600 a month, but the center says it charges on a sliding fee schedule based on income level and household size.

In addition to income, the family of a child wishing to receive a scholarship under the bill would have to meet one of several other criteria, including:

• Must have received a scholarship from a nonprofit scholarship-funding organization or from the state during the previous school year to attend a private school.

• Must be the sibling of a student who currently attends a private school on scholarship.

Casie Shreve of Fayetteville spoke for the bill. She said she has a teenage son who attends public school and a younger son with special needs who currently is on scholarship at a private school that addresses his needs.

“This will afford a family like me the opportunity to give my child a better education and life,” Shreve said.

English said she would bring the bill back to the committee for another vote.