Arkansas should focus taxpayer dollars on improving public schools

Arkansas Advocates for Children and Families opposes SB620, a bill to create a pilot K-12 education voucher program in Pulaski County. AACF believes that every child deserves a high-quality education. We also believe that efforts to improve educational outcomes should be evidence-based and have a proven track record of success. Education voucher programs like SB620 fail on both criteria.

Over the past 20 years, research on the impact of school vouchers on students and neighborhood schools in the U.S. and abroad has found generally negative results. Recent studies of voucher programs in large urban U.S. districts have found that vouchers not only often fail to help the students they intend to serve, but they can do more harm to both voucher students and school districts.

The bill would spend $3.5 million a year in taxpayer funds to send 500 students to private schools. The remaining 51,000 students attending the four traditional public schools in Pulaski County would be shortchanged by this bill in three ways. First, they would be denied the extra investment from the Governor’s discretionary funds afforded these 500 students. Second, three of the four school districts would lose state funding for any of their students who opt for the voucher program. When the Little Rock School District returns to local control, it, too, would lose state funding per pupil transferring to a private school under the program. Finally, the remaining students would be ineligible to compete for the college scholarships offered for students who graduate under the voucher program, regardless of their academic standing or financial need.

SB620 undermines legislative support for public education and would take dollars away from Arkansas public schools (which currently educate at least 9 out of 10 students) to fund private schools at taxpayers’ expense. Today, SB620 targets Pulaski County. In future years, it could be Pine Bluff, Northwest Arkansas, or a community near you.

Also of concern is that, although the bill requires student-level oversight with regard to academic progress, no such oversight is required of the schools themselves. The lack of transparency in the difference between a failing and passing grade in private schools is a fundamental reason for keeping public funding out of private schools.

Arkansas taxpayer dollars for education should be invested in public schools — not shifted into private school vouchers — so that every child in every community has the opportunity for a great public education. We need to get serious about doing what works and invest in neighborhood public schools so that students have inviting classrooms, a well-rounded curriculum, smaller class sizes to support one-on-one attention, high-quality early childhood education and afterschool and summer programs, literacy programs to ensure all students read at grade level, and support services such as health care and nutrition for students who need them.