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Arkansas governor marks start of year two for voucher applications

Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders and Education Secretary Jacob Oliva talk about the LEARNS Act and what it means for K-12 education in Arkansas at an invitation-only town hall in El Dorado on June 6, 2023.
Randall Lee
Courtesy of the Governor's Press Office
Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders and Education Secretary Jacob Oliva talk about the LEARNS Act and what it means for K-12 education in Arkansas at an invitation-only town hall in El Dorado on June 6, 2023.

From the Arkansas Advocate:

A private, Christian school in Fort Smith is adding a grade because of increased interest in Arkansas’ school voucher program, Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders said Monday.

Applications opened Monday for new students, schools and service providers enrolling in the Educational Freedom Account program, which is expanding eligibility criteria and enrollment limits in its second year.

A provision of the LEARNS Act, the EFA program provides state funds for allowable education expenses, including private school tuition.

The program is being phased in over three years, at which time it will be available to all Arkansas students. First-year participation was open to students enrolled in an “F”-rated school or school in need of Level 5 support, first-time kindergarteners, children of active duty military, foster children and students with disabilities or who are experiencing homelessness.

In the 2024-25 academic year, eligibility expands to include students at “D”-rated schools and children of veterans, military reservists or first responders.

Sanders discussed the program’s expansion during an event Monday at Fort Smith’s Harvest Time Academy, a private, Christian school with a mission “to equip students to know God, achieve academic excellence, discover their purpose, and make a difference,” according to the school’s website.

Sanders said Harvest Time will add sixth grade next year due to the success of the EFA program among military families.

The Fort Smith region is home to Fort Chaffee, which once served as a camp for army training, prisoners of war and refugees, and Ebbing National Guard Base, which houses the Arkansas Air National Guard’s 188th Wing. The base has also been selected as the future site of a foreign military pilot training center for the U.S. Air Force.

Principal Twyla Lambe said Harvest Time has seen a “surge of enrollment and interest” and will open more classrooms across various grade levels “in response to the overwhelming demand.”

Prior to the LEARNS Act’s passage, Lambe said many families who toured the school did not enroll because of the financial barrier.

“This legislation not only empowers families to choose the educational path that resonates with them, but also provides much needed relief to those who have previously sacrificed and stretched their budgets to afford private education,” she said.

Tuition at Harvest Time is $7,000 for kindergarten through 6th grade students, according to its website. Tuition for the 2023-2024 academic year was $6,300 for kindergarteners and $6,700 1st-5th grade students, according to an Advocate analysis of EFA school tuitions.

The $7,000 tuition slightly exceeds the $6,993 in state funding that will be available for EFA participants in the 2024-2025 academic year. Dustin Wood, director of school choice and parental empowerment for the Arkansas Department of Education, said unused EFA funds from the program’s inaugural year will be returned to the state, but funds will be rolled over in future years.

Wood discussed details of the program last week during an EFA webinar hosted by The Reform Alliance, a Little-Rock nonprofit that promotes “educational choice options.”

As the funding increases in the second year of the EFA program, so too will the number of students who can participate. The enrollment cap will double from 1.5% to 3% of the state’s total public school enrollment, from roughly 7,000 to 14,000, Wood said.

New applicants who meet all requirements will be preliminarily approved upon review and final approval can be expected in June because of procedural steps that will delay final action until the summer. Wood said the education department is finalizing which third-party vendor it will use to distribute quarterly EFA payments to schools. The department used Class Wallet last year.

Education department spokeswoman Kimberly Mundell said the contract will go to the Legislature for review in April or May.

The department also needs to receive approval on the final rules governing the EFA program. Wood said following a 30-day public comment period, a final draft will be presented to the State Board of Education and lawmakers for final approval. Mundell said that will be in May or June.

While applications for new participants opened Monday, renewals for current participants began in March. In the program’s first year, 5,407 student applications were funded and 102 private schools were approved as participants, according to the state education department.

At Monday’s event, Education Secretary Jacob Oliva said every school in the program’s first year plans to continue participating and the department has spoken with more than a half dozen new schools that intend to enroll for the first time.

According to documents obtained Friday through Arkansas’ open records law, 33 schools had submitted renewal applications. Seven new private schools also applied: Grace Christian School, Garrett Memorial Christian School, South Arkansas Christian School, The New School, Pottsville Assembly of God Christian Academy, Ridgefield Christian School and Conway Christian School.

Mundell said Monday that 4,010 students have renewed so far and eight new schools have applied.

Little Rock mom Heidi Lagrone told the Advocate Friday that it took less than five minutes to renew her son’s enrollment. This week Lagrone plans to enroll her adopted daughter, a first-time kindergartener.

Lagrone’s son was grandfathered into the EFA program as a past recipient of the Succeed Scholarship, which provided private school tuition for students with disabilities, foster children and military families. The program has been absorbed into the EFA program and Succeed Scholarship recipients will receive $7,771, Mundell said.

Lagrone said her son has special medical needs that affect his learning. He has an immune deficiency and a rare metabolic condition that can result in several school absences, like last week when he only attended one day of class.

By enrolling her son in a smaller, private school, Lagrone said she’s not concerned about him getting lost in a big school. If he has medical issues, staff can catch it quicker and contact her, she said.

In addition to leniency when it comes to making up lessons missed for health reasons, Lagrone said that, as a conservative Catholic, she appreciates knowing her son won’t learn anything inappropriate at his private Christian school.

“I’m very grateful that private school-wise he’s getting a good education at his level and then I’m not having to worry about him coming home with a thousand questions because they’ve learned this and that,” she said.

While the EFA program has proved beneficial for some, it’s not without its detractors. Critics have long argued that the program takes money away from public schools, which can be particularly difficult for smaller, rural districts that are already struggling.

Additionally, opponents argue that accountability between public and EFA private schools is not equitable even though both receive state funding. Public schools, for example, must admit all students, provide transportation and administer certain standardized tests; private schools do not. However, the LEARNS Act does require private schools to administer approved annual exams to EFA students.

Supporters of a ballot initiativeto amend the Arkansas Constitution’s education clause are hoping their measure will hold private schools that receive state funding to the same standards as public schools.

The measure’s backers must collect 90,704 signatures from at least 50 counties by July 5 to qualify the measure for the 2024 ballot.

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.