The Senate today approved SB 539 which will provide $3 million worth of school vouchers a year for lower-income students statewide to attend private schools. The vote was 21-10, with two not voting and two voting present.

The sponsor, Sen. Blake Johnson (R-Corning), insisted this was a scholarship program, not a voucher. But it’s a voucher. Public money goes to private schools. Sen. Linda Chesterfield (D-Little Rock) suggested he was putting “lipstick on a pig.” She also asked about discrimination. He said the bill would prevent money going to schools that discriminate. Chesterfield she was aware of a private school that didn’t accept black children.

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The bill allows people to get a dollar-for-dollar tax credit into a nonprofit agency that doles out the money. The effectively removes $3 million from general revenue, about half of which goes to public education.

Sen. Joyce Elliott (D-Little Rock) pressed Johnson on discrimination. He clarified that only the nonprofit is prevented from discriminating. But he said he couldn’t guarantee anything about policies of private schools chosen for receipt of the money. There might be a range of issues on which schools might accept or reject.  “A public school is not allowed to do that,” she said. But couldn’t a school discriminate?

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He said, “I hoped that wouldn’t happen in 2019.” Also, the bill prohibits discrimination under categories set out in federal law. There’s no protection there for LGBT students and many religious schools aren’t friendly to LGBT people.

Chesterfield said there’s no guarantee that the institution to which the money goes doesn’t discriminate. She said segregation schools still exist. She also said some schools don’t have lunch programs for poor children that publoic schools do. She also raised LGBT children. “We have to consider all the children,” she said.

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Sen. Jane English (R-North Little Rock) defended the bill. She insisted the Department of Education wouldn’t put qualifying schools on the list that discriminated.  That’s almost certainly not true, given religious beliefs at some “qualified” schools.

Sen. Will Bond (D-Little Rock) said the children who might need help first don’t get moved to the front of the line. The money is simply doled out first-come, first-served, within income qualifications.

Sen. Alan Clark (R-Lonsdale) said the bill was improved by including a required test of students who move to private schools.

Sen. Joyce Elliott (D-Little Rock) said this bill at least was better than the governor’s bill, SB 620, for $3 million worth of vouchers in Pulaski County.  She took note of the appearance of the op-ed supporting voucher in the Democrat-Gazette this morning. She said the data doesn’t support the notion that children who move to private schools will be better off.  If absolute data from Milwaukee after 27 years showed conclusively it was better, she asked, wouldn’t people be rushing to do the same?

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She asked why not spend more money on pre-K and after-school programs and more on adequate facilities.

What works is for kids to have a great start (pre-K) great teachers, good school standards and a clearly aligned curriculum, Elliott said. She urged work for “high-performing systems for everyone.”

The governor has made it clear he prefers his own voucher bill over this one. So there’s much by way of political machinations to come in the House. His bill is in the Senate Education Committee, where it apparently lacks votes for approval. Johnson’s bill came out of the Revenue and Taxation Committee in a surprise move yesterday.