LITTLE ROCK — A bill to create accounts parents could use to send their children to private or charter schools failed in the House on Thursday.
Also Thursday, a House committee advanced bills to move the dates of school elections and cap school districts’ carryover fund balances.
House Bill 1222 by Rep. Jim Dotson, R-Bentonville, received 37 votes in support and 47 votes against in the House. The bill would create a four-year pilot program allowing the establishment of “education savings accounts” that parents could use for certain expenses related to a child’s education, including tuition, fees, textbooks, tutoring services and contracted services with a public school district.
Under the measure, people and companies could donate to nonprofit organizations and, starting in the program’s second year, receive a 65 percent tax credit. The total tax credits provided in the second, third and fourth years of the program could not exceed $3 million per year.
The donations could fund accounts for up to 694 students. Each year, an account would be worth an amount equal to the state’s per-student spending on public education, which for this school year is $6,646.
Families could apply for the accounts regardless of whether they make donations.
“There’s not many votes that we get to cast in here that can effect the rest of a student’s life, maybe even generations of their family to come,” Dotson said.
Legislators who spoke against the bill raised concerns about accountability, fairness, the impact on public schools and implications for the future.
“Right now there is this train going down the track, and while it’s going at a slow pace, it stands to pick up pace and we stand to sooner or later become a voucher community, with those vouchers destroying public schools while the public schools decay and are not being improved,” said Rep. John Walker, D-Little Rock.
In an 11-5 vote, the House Education Committee gave a “do pass” recommendation Thursday to HB 1621 by Rep. Mark Lowery, R-Maumelle, which would require that annual school elections be held on the same days as general or primary elections.
In a year with no primary or general election, a district could hold the annual school election on the first Tuesday following the first Monday in November or on the date that a primary election would be held if a general election were held in that year.
Currently, annual school elections may be held on the third Tuesday in September or on the first Tuesday following the first Monday in November.
Lowery said the change would lead to greater engagement in school elections.
The bill goes to the House.
In a voice vote that was not unanimous, the committee gave a “do pass” recommendation to HB 1575 by Lowery.
Under the bill, if a school district’s net fund balance at the end of a fiscal year is greater than 20 percent of its net revenues for that year, the district would be required to reduce its balance to no more than 20 percent of revenue within five years.
Lowery told the committee he filed the bill after learning that Arkansas’ public school districts were sitting on $790 million in funds carried over from the last school year. The districts ought to be using more of that money for improvements that will help students, he said.
The bill goes to the House.