Joint Statement against amendment to the 529 College Savings Accounts
February 22, 2018
Dear Representatives and Senators,
Our organizations write to express our concerns with an amendment that was inserted in the Special Language Committee to HB1122 -- the appropriation for the State Treasurer’s Office -- to amend college 529 savings plans to allow them to be used for k-12 education expenses.
Our first concern is that this amendment creates an education voucher system in Arkansas - a dramatic change in education policy. It is very similar to multiple bills introduced during the last General Assembly that were rejected by the legislature. All of our concerns about previous voucher bills apply to this new amendment:
There are far more effective uses of state dollars to improve opportunities for Arkansas students than private school vouchers. The amendment will cost the state at least $5.2 million in year one. Budgets are sets of priorities, and vouchers are simply not where Arkansas should be prioritizing our scarce resources to provide excellent educational opportunities to all students. What public debate has the legislature had to prioritize $5.2 million for private school vouchers over other educational needs such as improving pre-k programs, expanding after-school and summer programs, developing new teachers, improving opportunities for low-income students or a host of other far more proven education reforms?
Vouchers, as created by this amendment, allow our public tax dollars to go to unaccountable, private schools. These private schools are not required to meet Arkansas standards for education, accountability or transparency. This amendment would allow public tax dollars to be spent on private, segregated academies that discriminate against students based on their race, religion, disability or a host of other factors. Our tax dollars should not support segregated schools.
This amendment, as most vouchers, make the achievement gap between poor and wealthy students worse. This voucher is in fact a $5.2 million tax cut that will vastly benefit wealthier families who have 529 accounts and who send their children to private schools. At the same time it leaves less resources in the state budget to provide educational opportunities to public school students. Not all families have the resources to create an education savings account, in fact a majority of Arkansas public school students are low-income and qualify for free and reduced lunches. This voucher proposal makes our education system less equitable.
We believe this amendment is such a substantive change to education policy that it is outside the scope of the normal business of a fiscal session. The creation of a school voucher system in Arkansas deserves the time and transparency to be considered in the regular education committees of the House and Senate. Many of our public schools are already under resourced - we should make allocating state funds for education a very careful and thoughtful process led by our education committees. The voucher bills of the 2017 legislative session garnered great public attention, media exposure and testimony. We have many constituents who have questions about this proposal and who would like to testify about it. But most of the public did not know about this amendment to the budget before it came before the Special Rules Committee.
We also believe this amendment circumvents the important work of the Tax Reform Taskforce and the House and Senate Revenue and Tax Committees. The sponsors of the amendment claim that this is merely bringing Arkansas tax code up to the new federal tax law. Changes to Arkansas tax code should be done holistically and with a view of their collective impact on our overall state budget and priorities.
The Tax Reform Taskforce may potentially recommend many changes to Arkansas tax code and those recommendations will likely go before the House and Senate Revenue and Tax Committees. They will likely review and consider a range of state tax policies in response to recent federal tax law changes during the 2019 legislative session. Why is the 529 the only new federal tax change that is being considered during the fiscal session? And it is not the case that Arkansas tax laws always align with federal tax policy. For example, we would like to see a state Earned Income Tax Credit for the working poor that matches the federal EITC prioritized.
In closing, we believe that private school vouchers are bad policy for Arkansas. We believe changes of this magnitude should be fully vetted in a transparent process through the appropriate committees in a Regular Session of the General Assembly. We believe the public should be aware of the proposed changes and have time to participate in the process of reviewing the proposal and offer comments and testimony to their lawmakers. We believe this amendment, at this time, abuses the purpose of a fiscal session and circumvents the work of the Education Committees of the legislature as well as the Tax Reform Taskforce and the House and Senate Revenue and Tax Committees.
Thank you for considering our concerns about this voucher proposal.
Arkansas Advocates for Children and Families
Arkansas Citizens First Congress
Rural Community Alliance
Arkansas Opportunity to Learn Campaign