LITTLE ROCK (AP) — Arkansas lawmakers have introduced governor-backed legislation in the Senate that would fund a pilot private school voucher program for low-income students in the state's largest county.
The measure filed Wednesday would launch a five-year program in Pulaski County that uses $3.5 million annually in public funds to send around 500 students who qualify for federal lunch-buying assistance to private schools.
If approved, the "Capital Promise Scholarship" would be state's largest school-choice program. The scholarships would be available to Pulaski County students enrolling in kindergarten at a private school or transferring from a public school after attending for at least one semester. It also includes students whose family incomes are below the federal poverty level, which is $47,637 for a family of four in Arkansas. If the students attend higher education institutions in the county, they will still be eligible to access scholarship.
Gov. Asa Hutchinson said Wednesday that his office would allot discretionary funds to cover the subsidy, the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette reported.
"This is an important and meaningful step in providing low-income families with a choice in the education their children receive," Hutchinson said in the release. "Pulaski County offers a unique opportunity for us to effectively evaluate a school choice scholarship program and measure student achievement. Every student deserves the opportunity to reach his or her potential, and this bill will help them do just that."
It would start in the 2020-21 school year and conclude in 2025.
Arkansas offers a similar program to about 250 students with disabilities under the Succeed Scholarship Program.
Voucher programs have been disputed nationwide.
Supporters believe parents should have access public funds to send their kids to suitable schools. Critics contend the programs destabilize public schools.
Under the proposal, the funds must first be spent on tuition, fees, uniforms and textbooks; but residual funds may be used on tutoring, college-placement exams, transportation, after-school programs, and other support services.
Rep. Ken Bragg, the bill's House sponsor, said he was hopeful about the bill's chances of passing in the House, chiefly because it's a trial program with an expiration date.
"I think the pilot project is a good concept because it gives us a good period of time to evaluate," Bragg said.