“No” votes members said private schools should be able to take state money and do as they please

Rep. Jim Wooten, a Republican from Beebe, made it clear from the start of Tuesday’s House Education Committee meeting that his bill is about accountability.

While we still haven’t seen the fine print, we know Arkansas lawmakers will soon vote on Gov. Sarah Sanders‘ plan to give vouchers to every student in Arkansas who wants to opt out of traditional public schools in favor of private, parochial or homeschool options.

A former coach and longtime public school advocate, Wooten presented a bill Tuesday that attempted to give school-shopping parents more information and accountability about the private schools they might be buying into. By requiring private schools that accept publicly funded vouchers to conduct annual student assessments, Wooten’s House Bill 1204 would give parents more data to work with as they try to determine which school is best for their child. 

After all, the “school choice” arguments we hear most often are rooted in parental empowerment. Won’t parents be more empowered in their choices if they have a clear apples-to-apples comparison between private and public schools’ metrics? 

Wooten’s HB1204 would also require private schools to admit any student who comes along, just as public schools must. It seems only fair. Right?

Wrong, according to the committee members charging headlong toward unfettered school choice on the public’s dime. Wooten’s bill was defeated in a 12-5 vote.

Rep. Rick Beck (R-Center Ridge) took issue with the state-assigned testing requirement, arguing that what students do with their lives after attending private high schools could tell parents what they need to know about what those schools have to offer. “Are you saying whatever private schools are using [to test students] are substandard?” Beck asked.

“I don’t care what type of test they are using. I’m just saying they must use the same test so we can compare apples to apples,” Wooten answered. “I’m not here to criticize private schools, but I do think we need accountability.”

Rep. Steven Meeks, a Greenbrier Republican, said testing requirements for private schools that accept vouchers would be superfluous because the free market will do its magic, with good schools raking in students and bad ones closing for lack of enrollment. He also pushed back on requiring private schools to accept any student who applies. “If a private school only has 25 slots and 150 kids apply, the school would have to accept all of those kids. This will create a problem for these schools.” 

Logistics are going to be a challenge if Arkansas adopts universal vouchers regardless of this bill, Wooten pointed out. “We’re going to have a problem at the state level. Say 200 students here in Little Rock decide to go to Bryant Schools. Bryant will have to take them and build new buildings. This will be paid for by Bryant people, not Little Rock people. If they want to go there, that’s what school choice is about.” 

Pine Bluff Democrat Rep. Vivian Flowers said she supported Wooten’s accountability bill to require standardized testing and open enrollment for schools that accept public money. Ensuring there’s a standard of accountability and equal access when public funds are at play is the state government’s responsibility, she said.

Rep. Denise Garner (D-Fayetteville) pointed out that private schools that don’t want to test their students or accept all comers could simply opt out of accepting voucher funding. Catholic schools, for example, would not be required to accept non-Catholic students unless they wanted to receive stand funds. But by using public funding for private schools where no guardrails are in place to ensure quality, the state is opening itself up to “another Lake View,” Garner said, referencing the monumental court decision that established the Arkansas state constitution requires equitable education funding for all students.

“We are putting public funds into schools where we have no idea what they’re doing,” Garner said.

Wooten agreed. “It’s the private school’s decision if they want to accept school-choice state money. Otherwise, it doesn’t apply. Some would consider it faith-based indoctrination,” he said. 

Only two members of the audience spoke on the bill. Ryan Norris, state director for the Koch Brothers-funded conservative group Americans for Prosperity, opposed it. He argued Wooten’s bill would draw legal challenges.

Andrew Smith, the vice president of the Helena-West Helena School Board, spoke in favor of the bill. “If we are entertaining the idea of competition between schools, as an educator, I would love to see objective success measurement between schools so we can have educated decisions on what school is best for the parents,” he said. 

Rep. Jim Wooten (left) listens as Helena-West Helena School Board member Andrew Smith speaks in favor of HB1204.

Requiring testing in private schools defeats the purpose, since parents often choose private education specifically because those schools are unfettered by testing requirements and offer different programs than public schools, Republican Rep. Grant Hodges of Rogers said. He also didn’t like the idea of private schools having to take every student who comes knocking.

“My biggest issue is that if the school accepts public funds, every student would have to be admitted,” Hodges said. 

In a vote of 12-5, committee members voted down the bill, with one abstention from Rep. DeAnn Vaught (R-Horatio).

The bill’s failure sends a message that’s contradictory to the prevailing school-choice movement message, which is that students should not be trapped in failing schools because of where students live. By voting against this bill, the majority of House Education members indicated choice is less about the quality of education students receive, and more about state-funded elitism.

With their “No” votes, 12 House Education members said private schools should be able to take state money and do as they please — no requirements to adjust curriculum, accountability that proves students are learning, or admit kids they don’t like the looks of.

House Education Committee members voting against Wooten’s bill were Republicans Beck, Meeks, Hodges, Brit McKenzie of Rogers, Brad Cozart of Hot Springs, Charlene Fite of Van Buren, Lanny Fite of Benton, John Maddox of Mena, Sonia Barker of Smackover, Hope Duke of Gravette, Stetson Painter of Mountain Home and Carlton Wing of North Little Rock. 

Wooten isn’t done yet, though. He has a separate bill, House Bill 1205, that would require private schools to provide transportation for voucher-admitted students. That bill will be taken up on Thursday.

Wooten also indicated he is working on another bill that would apply assessment testing to voucher-supported homeschoolers. That bill has yet to be filed. 

Those who voted in support of Wooten’s bill Tuesday were Democrats Flowers and Garner and Republicans Ron McNair of Harrison, Stephen Walker of Horseshoe Bend and Wayne Long of Bradford.