House Bill 1222 by Rep. Jim Dotson will be considered by the House Education Committee on Thursday.
Since we first wrote about this legislation in January, the bill has undergone some minor tweaks; however, the goal of allowing kids to have the opportunity to pursue an education that best fits their needs is still the same.
Dotson’s legislation would create education savings accounts (ESAs) to subsidize the cost of a K-12 student to attend nonpublic schools or a nonpublic online program. These ESAs would be funded by donations from private businesses and individuals, who would receive a tax credit in exchange for their donation. ESA recipients would receive $6,646, currently the state’s minimum educational foundation funding total, to use on educational expenditures.
Donations would be sent to qualifying nonprofits approved by the Department of Finance and Administration, according to the legislation.
School choice opponents have supplied two main objections to this proposal. The first objection is that the tax credits offered under this program would lead to a revenue shortfall for the state.
The problem with this objection is that it only accounts for the revenue loss to the state from the tax credits — and not the savings incurred in educational funding when a student moves from a public school to a nonpublic school environment.
A study from the University of Arkansas predicted that the program would bring a net benefit of $2.8 million to the state in the first year the program is in effect — after taking into account the revenue loss from the tax credits and the cost savings the state would recover by not having to educate those students receiving an ESA.
Another study done by the Alabama Federation for Children (AFC) shows that Alabama’s ESA program saved the state approximately $30 million in 2014 and 2015.
Dotson also amended his legislation in late February to change how the tax credit to ESA donors would work. The original legislation contained a donation cap of $10 million with a dollar-for-dollar tax credit. The amended legislation only allows for a tax credit of 65 percent of donations. For every $6,646 in ESAs generated by donations, the state would only lose $4,320 (65 percent of $6,646) in tax revenue. So, a student switching from a public school to a nonpublic school under this ESA program would at minimum save taxpayers $2,336.
The second major objection to this legislation is that it would create a mass exodus away from public schools towards private schools.
Here’s Terry Belcher, a Walnut Ridge School District Superintendent, speaking about HB 1222 with a Jonesboro television station:
If the legislature is going to give money to parents to take their child to a private institution then obviously we have a potential negative impact, them pulling their child out of a public school.
Dotson’s bill places a one percent annual cap on ESA recipients in each public school district. Therefore, the impact of falling enrollments on public schools would be minimal.
However, even this possible one percent enrollment drop should motivate public schools to offer an educational product that’s competitive with area non-public school options.
Do Arkansas parents and students deserve the power to choose an educational environment that best fits their needs? Or do we think the status quo in K-12 education is good enough for our state? Those are the question lawmakers should ask themselves on Thursday.
Many expect the Democrats on the House Education committee to oppose this legislation. However, the bill could still pass if enough Republicans voted in favor. The Republican Party of Arkansas’s platform states, “School choice made possible by scholarships or other funding sources should be implemented across the state.” On Thursday, I guess we’ll get to see if they actually mean it.