CRAIGHEAD COUNTY, AR (KAIT) - Many school superintendents and parents are concerned with a recent proposal in the state legislature that would help some families with the finances to afford a private education. Many district superintendents believe they could lose state funding if the bill, called the Arkansas Parental Empowerment for Education Choice Act of 2017, passes and is signed into law.
Right now the bill is in the Arkansas House Education Committee.
The proposal has raised quite the controversy across the state as it reads, "The General Assembly finds that each child in this state should have an opportunity to receive a quality education that fits his or her needs regardless of income or the neighborhood in which the child lives."
District 53 State Representative Dan Sullivan told Region 8 News the bill would create an "education savings account", separate from the state's general fund, that would assist families with affording private school, a nonpublic online program, textbooks and others.
"Any student who is eligible as a public school student of age K-12 is eligible to apply," Sullivan said.
Sullivan the "education savings account" is funded through donations that are tax deductible. He made it clear the "education savings account" and state general fund are different funding mechanisms. He said businesses and individuals could donate for a tax credit to a nonprofit organization that would fund the accounts.
"Because of the limited funds, the limited funds will support about 1,500 students," Sullivan said. "There's 377,000 plus students in the state."
Once a parent applies for the ESA, students selected by lottery would receive roughly $6,600 to help them transition to a private school, homeschooling, a nonpublic online program or tutoring services.
However, this concerns some public schools. Sullivan stated that when a student leaves a public school, the funding goes with them.
Sullivan told Region 8 News when all revenue sources are combined, a school could lose roughly $11,000 per student.
However, Sullivan also stated that many students switch districts often and the funding moves with the student.
Walnut Ridge School District Superintendent Terry Belcher is one of many local administrators who are interested in the bill.
"The number one thing is that it has the potential to negatively impact the schools financially," Belcher said. "We are all fighting for students and to get students. 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."
Though public schools lose funding per child when they exit the district, Sullivan said surprisingly public schools can benefit from this.
"The education to revenue for the Department of Education is $5.3-billion," Sullivan said. "This bill targets $10-million of that. However, by the time it washes through the system and all kids transfer in and transfer out, it works out to actually be a $2.8-million gain for the district."
Belcher, as of now, does not see how this bill could be a positive. He said he could see it hurting the Walnut Ridge School District in the long run.
"You know, if you lose 3 or 5 students a year at $3,000 to $6,000 multiplied by 5, that is $30,000," Belcher said. "If you lose five a year over 10 years it's $300,000. That's just five students."
According to Sullivan, after meeting with a group of superintendents, they indicated that enrollment in private schools is going down.
He said if public schools continue to stay competitive in what they offer, there will not be a mass exodus or roadblocks in the future.
Region 8 News also spoke with administrators at Ridgefield Christian School in Jonesboro, which is a private school.
Superintendent Marcia Elder said the bill would provide a tremendous opportunity for her school. She claimed she has received calls from parents curious about the bill.
"She said I've always wanted to send my children to private schools but my finances prohibited that," Elder said of a parent. "She said I'm so excited because this might provide a way for us."
Elder said she supports the bill and believes it will give parents a financial opportunity to get their kids in a private educational setting.
Sullivan said the bill would allow for $10-million in tax credits in the first year for those who donate to nonprofit entities who would offer the ESA.
Sullivan said he is hopeful to see the bill move through quickly. He is one of several cosponsors of the bill.
To view the proposal, click here.
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