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Some Arkansas private schools hold back from joining voucher program

Christ Academy Prinicipal Nyesha Greer (far left) visited Jacksonport State Park on Oct. 13, 2023 with a group of 6th-8th grade students.
Courtesy photo
Christ Academy Prinicipal Nyesha Greer (far left) visited Jacksonport State Park on Oct. 13, 2023 with a group of 6th-8th grade students.

From the Arkansas Advocate:

More than a third of Arkansas’ private schools opted not to participate in the inaugural year of the state’s new voucher program. Some, like South Arkansas Christian School in Lewisville, said they are still weighing the benefits of the Educational Freedom Account program and may join in the future.

“The first year, it was limited on who could come anyway, and we felt like we had a couple years to really make an informed decision about it,” Administrator Andy Hawkins said. “So someone is reading through the document, checking to see if it would be beneficial for us to do it. Rather than rushing in, we felt it would be wise to take our time.”

Created through the LEARNS Act, the EFA program will be phased in over three years with first-year eligibility limited to specific criteria, including having a disability or entering kindergarten for the first time. The program provides about $6,600 for allowable educational expenses, including private school tuition. The average tuition cost at EFA schools is about $7,600.

“We are not negative toward it, it’s not that we’re opposed to it, we just want to make sure it’s good for us as an individual school,” Hawkins said.

South Arkansas Christian School
Courtesy photo
South Arkansas Christian School

South Arkansas Christian School opened in 2004 and has 41 students enrolled this fall. Tuition is $6,000 for kindergarten through eighth grade and $8,000 for 9th through 12th grade before discounts and scholarships, Hawkins said.

“The county is poor, and we’ve always had a board that’s been very supportive of allowing any student who wanted to be here to be able to come,” he said. “We don’t want finances to stand in the way, so we work hard to help in any way we can.”

Nearly 24% of residents in Lafayette County where the school is located live in poverty, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. That’s the ninth highest in the state.

In Jackson County, where the poverty rate is more than 22%, Christ Academy Principal Nyesha Greer said her school’s application was approved, but ultimately she decided to wait until the program is fully implemented and would benefit more of her students.

Christ Academy opened its doors in 2018 and serves grades 6 through 8. The Newport-based school, which has 14 students this fall, currently doesn’t charge tuition. The school is affiliated with a church — Seeds of Faith Fellowship — that provides classroom space, and has relied on private donors and grants for funding.

“It’s not a set amount of money that we’re working with every year, it’s whoever gives and however much they give, but we’ve been very, very blessed in that area of having some great people who give,” Greer said.

Greer is one of three volunteers who teach for free, and charging tuition would provide an opportunity for growth, she said. The school’s only paid staff member is a salaried full-time secretary.

Greer said she anticipates Christ Academy will participate in the EFA program when it expands to all Arkansas students in year three.

“It actually works out in the long run because it gives our parents time to prepare from going from free tuition to having the paid tuition part of it, so all of that is what we’re looking forward to down the road,” she said.

Ninety-four private schools were participating in the EFA program as of Sept. 20, according to an Arkansas Department of Education report. That list varies slightly from the 94 applications provided to the Advocate in August through a public records request.

Christ Academy, Mt. Comfort Sonshine School and My Life My Power World Inc. all submitted applications, but are not participating in the inaugural year of the program.

ADE spokeswoman Kimberly Mundell said these three schools were excluded from the final list because they have not yet submitted all the requisite information to become an approved EFA school or because they notified ADE they would not participate this year.

Central Arkansas Montessori, Crestline Academy and St. Joseph Catholic School in Paris were new additions to the EFA participant list in September. St. Joseph Principal Michelle O’Neal said her school applied this summer, but its application was confused with another school with the same name, and the paperwork wasn’t sorted out until later.

Mundell said these three schools’ applications were processed after the August deadline.

“Please note that while we had a deadline for schools to facilitate an expedient EFA process this year, we still accepted applications after the deadline,” she said.

Increasing participation

In its first EFA report this month, ADE noted future opportunities for the program, including expanding school choice options throughout the state, “particularly in currently underrepresented geographies.”

In response to a request for comment from Education Secretary Jacob Oliva about why this is an important goal and whether he has a plan or particular strategies to increase participation, Mundell emailed the following statement:

“As stated previously, a one-size-fits-all approach does not work. LEARNS empowers parents by providing them educational options. Regardless of a family’s zip code, parents should have the opportunity to choose the school that best meets the needs of their child.”

One group of students who could be provided more access to EFA schools in the future are students in struggling schools. Students enrolled in schools with an “F”-rating or Level 5 support during the 2021-2022 academic year are eligible for the inaugural year of the program. However, only 55 of the nearly 4,800 students participating in the program met this qualification, according to the EFA report.

Forty percent of Arkansas’ 95 “F”-rated schools are located in 15 counties with no EFA school. Eight of those counties have no private schools, according to an Advocate analysis.

There is no single clearinghouse for Arkansas private schools, but the Advocate independently confirmed the existence of 149 private schools this spring.

Jefferson and Mississippi counties have the most “F”-rated schools with 11 and 6, respectively. While Jefferson County has no private schools, Mississippi has one — The Delta School. A spokesperson said while they appreciated the Advocate reaching out, “the school Administration would not like to make a statement on their decision regarding the program.”

Phillips County has the third most “F”-rated schools with five. This includes the two schools in the Marvell-Elaine School District, which garnered much attention this summer as a lawsuit challenged the implementation date of the state’s first transformation contract.

A provision of the LEARNS Act, a transformation contract allows a struggling school district to partner with an open-enrollment public charter school or another state board-approved entity to create “a public school district transformation campus.”

Phillips County has two private schools — Marvell Academy and DeSoto School. Neither responded to requests for comment sent through multiple emails as well as a message left with a secretary after calling each school’s office.

Both schools opened in the 1960s and 1970s when there was a rapid expansion of new, non-parochial private schools in the South. Often called the “segregation academy” movement, these schools were concentrated in areas with large African American populations like Pulaski County and the Delta, according to the Encyclopedia of Arkansas.

Most of Marvell Academy’s board of directors were members of a local pro-segregation group when the school opened in 1966, according to the encyclopedia entry.

Student EFA applications are accepted on a rolling basis, and an ADE official said Tuesday that the state can take about 1,500 more students this year, according to the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.

The state could open applications in February for the 2024-20225 school year when an estimated 13,000 students will be able to participate as eligibility criteria expands in the program's second year.

Antoinette Grajeda is a multimedia journalist who has reported since 2007 on a wide range of topics, including politics, health, education, immigration and the arts for NPR affiliates, print publications and digital platforms. A University of Arkansas alumna, she earned a bachelor’s degree in print journalism and a master’s degree in documentary film.