Governor Sarah Huckabee Sanders has announced her plan to allow parents to shift their child’s ‘education dollars’ from public schools to private or religious schools. Surely she is aware of legal reasons such an action cannot occur: diverting school money to religious schools violates the First Amendment of the Constitution, which requires a separation of church and state. As a taxpayer, I am not alone in refusing to allow my tax dollars to pay for religious schooling.
Sanders makes it sound simple: Parents would take their child’s share that helps finance public schools and instead pay that amount to a private or religious school. But what an individual parent might pay toward their child’s education is a drop in the bucket compared to the money required to education a child, an approximate $10,414 for one school year. These funds come from federal taxpayers, state taxpayers, and local school district taxpayers, not an individual parent. Appropriating that $10,414 to be funneled to a private school, religious school, or homeschool is, plain and simple, a theft of public money.
Sanders promises tax cuts, but only a small portion of each child’s education cost comes from a parent’s real estate taxes.
- Arkansas K-12 schools receive $638,279,000, or $1,289 per pupil, from the federal government, and would without question be withheld if any portion was directed to religious schools, at the least.
- State funding, which comes from ALL Arkansas taxpayers including those without children and those who do not wish their taxes to support private or religious schools, totals $2,971,791,000 or $6,002 per pupil.
- Local funding, which includes ALL local taxpayers not just the parents who demand a voucher program, totals $2,201,220,000 or an average of $4,445 per pupil.
Sanders apparently believes that allowing parents to direct funding to schools they prefer would result in the best possible education of that child, but there is no guarantee that parents have any real comprehension of what constitutes suitable education. Arkansas is one of the most poorly educated states, meaning in general that parents are not well educated. Likewise, school districts—especially small rural districts—are often governed by school boards which are often without any college-educated members.
It’s important to note that the per capita income in Arkansas averages only $29,200. And while some Arkansas counties enjoy per capita incomes which average over $27,334 per year, in other counties that number drops to $13,103. Nearly 20% of the state’s residents live in poverty. This further illustrates the vicious cycle involved:
Poverty has many causes including a lack of education and skills to bring to the work force, a family’s geographic location, a lack of community support, family structure (specifically the number of earners in a family impacts the ability to make ends meet), incarceration, and income inequality. Children in poverty experience additional problems in educational and cognitive development, health outcomes, social and emotional development and are more likely to live in poverty as adults.
Further complicating the problem are teen pregnancies. The state leads the nation in teen births, 27.8 per 1,000 (2022), due largely to a lack of contraceptives and proper sex education. A 2022 study reported the need for the following policy changes:
Create mandatory statewide curriculum for medically accurate sexual education. • Provide free access to Long-Acting Reversible Contraception. • Eliminate restriction to distribution of contraceptives in School-Based Clinics. • Target communities whose birth rates are far above the norm for their groups nationally, including White and Pacific Islander teens. • Expand access and eliminate barriers to health care for Black women and girls, whose teen birth rates are higher than the state average. • Increase educational opportunities as a protective factor. • Continue access to Medicaid, WIC, and SNAP benefits as a protective factor.
It’s a safe bet that the new governor will not champion sex education and better access to birth control for teens, even though this would be a strong step toward breaking into the cycle of low income, poorly educated residents unable to afford medical care. Young women with children are the most common household qualifying for financial assistance including Medicaid—90% of welfare recipients are single mothers. DHS forecasts total federal and state Medicaid funding of $9.46 billion in fiscal 2023 — up from $9.39 billion in the current fiscal 2022. Arkansas taxpayers contribute about 30% of this total.
Does Sanders propose to cut the state’s Medicaid funding? This is part of the Republican effort to reduce the budget. But Medicaid plays a major role in funding for mainstreaming students with disabilities.
In the 2017-18 school year, there were 61,553 students with disabilities aged 5-21 in Arkansas public schools or 12.9% of total student enrollment in the state. This does not include students in the Arkansas School for the Deaf, Arkansas School for the Blind, Division of Youth Services, the Department of Corrections, or the Conway Human Development Center. This is up from 55,874 students (11.7% of total student enrollment) in 2014-15.
It’s no surprise that the big dream of Sanders grows thornier as bill writing progresses. Surely the state’s legal advisors will warn of the potential loss of federal dollars in state education funding if she proceeds with her plan. The best path through this tangle is to eliminate the voucher section from her education plan and instead plow all available funding into public schools where students learn, collaborate, and grow alongside their peers. It will be a tragedy for Arkansas if Sanders succeeds in dividing our youth into potentially prejudicial interest groups that will expand the current culture wars.
 Per capita income is used to determine the average per-person income for an area and to evaluate the standard of living and quality of life of the population. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_Arkansas_locations_by_per_capita_income
 See https://www.arkleg.state.ar.us/Bureau/Document?type=pdf&source=education%2FK12/AdequacyReports/2018%2F2018-06-18&filename=SpecialEducationReport_BLR_21