Privatizing Education Puts Our Kids and Our Democracy at Risk

Arkansas Advocates for Children and Families (AACF) is grateful yet again that Governor Hutchinson has stepped in to mitigate the effects of what he and many other policymakers know is a bad bill, House Bill 1222, which essentially would transfer public tax dollars to private schools in the form of vouchers. But while the sixth amendment to this bill would limit the fiscal impact and time frame for implementing a bad policy, it still would leave our state and our students with bad public policy nonetheless. AACF has major concerns about how HB1222 would impact students, their civil rights, and socioeconomic segregation, based on decades of research on voucher programs from around the country and abroad.

We are also frustrated at the continued emphasis on divisive and ineffective education programs, when we could be investing in proven bipartisan policies instead. Child and education advocates like AACF have been working hard to find creative, cost-effective ways to provide a cost of living increase for high-quality pre-K programs for our lowest-income students and rigorous after-school and summer reading and STEM programs for all kids for almost 10 years – and we have been told time after time that there is no money. Based on the latest amendment to HB1222, the Arkansas Department of Finance and Administration’s projection of the fiscal impact of this bill is now approximately $3 million. When originally introduced, the bill would have cost nearly $11.5 million by FY 2025. We do find it reassuring to know that money is, in fact, available for research-based programs that we can all agree on. However, providing private school vouchers is not one of them, for the following reasons:

  • HB1222 would provide a tax-cut windfall to the wealthy seeking to promote privatization of our public schools. Corporations and individuals can already receive tax deductions for giving as much money as they want to private schools for scholarships. HB1222 would not only give an even bigger tax credit to the wealthy, but it also would create many unnecessary legal and civil rights problems, while doing nothing to improve education in our state.
  • HB1222 would transfer taxpayer dollars to private enterprises that have zero accountability to the public.
  • Private schools are not subject to the same academic and financial transparency requirements as public schools, so there is no way to compare how well they are performing – not even if you make a voucher student take a nationally recognized norm-referenced test.
  • 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. Some recent studies of voucher programs in large urban U.S. districts has found that vouchers not only do not help the students they intended to serve, but they actually do more harm to both voucher students and school districts.
  • Dr. Patrick Wolfe, a voucher proponent at the University of Arkansas, testified in favor of HB1222 in the House Education Committee; however, he neglected to mention the findings of his own study of one of the largest voucher programs in the nation, Louisiana’s Scholarship Program. According to prominent researcher Dr. Doug Harris in the conservative research journal, Education Next, the findings from Wolfe’s study “are the worst effects I have ever seen – for vouchers or anything else. Remember, the first-year effect was -24 percentile points and this ‘improves’ to only -13 percentile points in the second year.”
  • HB1222 does nothing to help the vast majority of students in Arkansas who live in rural or suburban areas with no private schools.
  • Even if there were an abundant supply of private schools, there is no guarantee that any voucher student would be accepted. While HB1222 does prohibit nonprofit organizations that would distribute the vouchers from discriminating on the basis of gender, national origin, race, ethnicity, religion, or disability, it creates no such requirement for private schools that would accept students receiving vouchers.
  • Unless a private school receives some type of federal funding, it is not subject to the following federal laws that protect students and are not required to share this information with parents upon application:
    • Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964: Prohibits discrimination on the basis of race or national origin.
    • Title IX of the Educational Amendments of 1972: Prohibits discrimination based on sex.
    • Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act (29 USC § 794): Prohibits discrimination based on disability.
    • Of course, private religious schools are also free to discriminate on the basis of religion. For example, a private Christian school in Little Rock expelled a kindergarten student when it discovered that her parents were Mormon. How many students of other faiths or denominations would be turned away under this bill?
  • The potential for some private schools to pick and choose which students’ voucher money they would like to accept is perhaps the biggest concern of all. Our state should be focused on research-based solutions that help all students and public schools, not outdated experiments that have been shown to fail our most vulnerable kids.

While the sixth-amended version of HB1222 now limits the program to a four-year pilot project, the intent of this legislation remains clear: It is meant to open the door for a future major expansion of vouchers and a privatization agenda at the expense of our public schools, which welcome all students, regardless of need, ability, or background. Our public schools are the foundation of a healthy democracy, and they have already been underfunded at the expense of massive tax cuts for too long.