Gov. Asa Hutchinson's proposal to create a grant that would pay for tuition and fees for students at Arkansas community or technical colleges failed to pass the Senate Education Committee in a 4-4 vote Wednesday.
The committee's three Democrats voted against the bill, along with one Republican. It needed five votes to advance.
HB 1426 would create the Arkansas Future Grant Program, which would provide funding to students who are eligible for financial aid and are working toward an associate degree or certification in science, technology, engineering or math, or a regional high-demand field of study.
The grant would pay the balance of tuition and fees at a state-supported two-year or four-year college or university after other financial aid had been applied. The state would pay for the grants by canceling two other needs-based grants, the Workforce Improvement Grant and the Higher Education Opportunities Grant.
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Democrats on the committee expressed concern that the grant only applied to students attending state-funded institutions, leaving out private institutions and, in particular, historically black colleges and universities.
"It is discriminatory. You don't mean for it to be discriminatory," Sen. Joyce Elliot, D-Little Rock, said to Sen. Blake Johnson, R-Corning, lead sponsor of the bill. "What you're missing is that the impact is discriminatory."
Maria Markham, director of Arkansas's Department of Higher Education, said limiting the scholarship to state-supported institutions would enable the grant money to go further because public colleges and universities are less expensive.
Markham said the average grant per student should be around $500. The maximum amount a student could receive is $3,500, based on the average cost to earn a two-year credential at a public institution. The grants would be awarded on a first come, first serve basis.
Sen. Alan Clark, R-Hot Springs, voted against the bill because he says he tries to "always be consistent" when it comes to school choice.
"There's absolutely no difference between higher ed and K through 12. School choice is school choice. Money ought to follow kids," he said.
Hutchinson spokesman JR Davis said, "It's not inconsistent. ...We have to have a starting point somewhere, and this is a starting point.
"In an ideal world, we would have plenty of money to cover everything, but in this case it would really water down the ArFuture grant if it was expanded anymore to what it is right now," he said.
Davis said he was confident the bill would get another hearing in committee.
(This reporting is courtesy of the Arkansas Nonprofit News Network, an independent, nonpartisan news project dedicated to producing journalism that matters to Arkansans.)