LITTLE ROCK, Ark. — Opponents of a legislative effort to fund a pilot private school voucher program in a central Arkansas county said Monday the bill would “experiment” on primarily black children while not increasing funding for more traditional public school improvement methods.
Democratic State Sen. Joyce Elliott, who represents southwest Little Rock, said that the five year program to provide up to $3.5 million for around 500 low-income students in Pulaski County to attend private schools is part of a faulty piecemeal effort to improve education that ultimately undermines public schools.
“We just keep running after the next bright shiny object,” Elliott said, instead suggesting the legislature should be directing funding towards pre-K and after school programs, community schools and other public school programs.
The program would allot $3.5 million out of the governor’s discretionary funds for low-income students. Each student would receive about $5,500 per year from kindergarten through eighth grade and $6,900 per year from ninth through twelfth grade. If the student graduated with at least a 2.5 GPA, they would also receive $5,000 per year for attendance at eligible two or four-year colleges in the county.
The five-year pilot would be for all Pulaski County students, which includes Little Rock School District, North Little Rock School District, Pulaski County Special School District and the newly created Jacksonville North Pulaski School District.
Students would be eligible if their family’s income is 185 percent of the federal poverty level. For a family of four in Arkansas, that amounts to $47,637. According to state data for the 2018-2019 school year, nearly three quarters of the 21,595 students enrolled in the Little Rock School District alone are low-income.
If more students apply than can be funded, there will likely be a lottery system to determine which students are accepted, said the bill’s co-sponsor Republican State Sen. Mark Johnson.
The pilot program is for five years and it’s not clear where funding for the program will come from after this year. Republican Gov. Asa Hutchinson’s term will expire before the program ends.
Republican State Rep. Ken Bragg, who co-sponsored the bill, says the bill aims to provide options to students for whom public school is not the right fit but who might not be able to otherwise afford private schools.
“We need choices. One type of educational structure cannot meet the needs of every child,” Bragg said. “There will always be those children who are somewhat like square pegs trying to fit in a round hole. They’re the ones that need to find that square hole.”
Wealthier parents can afford to find better fits for their children, Bragg said, arguing the program will give those opportunities to lower-income parents as well.
Little Rock School District will not lose funding for students who leave for private schools because the bill ensures that districts who are under state control will not be financially penalized. The state Board of Education has run Little Rock School District since 2015 after six schools were classified as academically distressed.
Hutchinson says he backs the program despite previously not supporting school voucher proposals. Pulaski County is an ideal testing ground for this pilot, Hutchinson said, because it has a large low-income population as well as a variety of private school options.
“It’s hard for me to see anyone looking at this program and saying that this does not give good options for students and parents who want their students to have a good education,” Hutchinson said. “It doesn’t compel anybody to leave the public schools, it doesn’t even incentivize them to leave the public schools. It just gives them a choice if they are in a school that doesn’t fit for their child.”