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State Board of Education approves new accountability system, guidelines

Arkansas Department of Education Deputy Commissioner Stacy Smith (right) discusses draft rules with state board of education members during a work session in Little Rock on March 6, 2024.
Antoinette Grajeda
Arkansas Advocate
Arkansas Department of Education Deputy Commissioner Stacy Smith (right) at a previous meeting of the board. On Thursday she presented testing and accreditation rules for private schools receiving public money.

The Arkansas State Board of Education approved new accountability guidelines for private schools getting tax money on Thursday.

The 2023 LEARNS Act signed into law by Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders allowed public money to be used for private schools. The money comes from a pool of funds called the “education freedom account.”

Sanders and Education Secretary Jacob Oliva have promised accountability measures for these schools since the law was passed. Stacy Smith, Deputy Commissioner of the Education Department's Division of Elementary and Secondary Education, presented the new rules at a meeting on Thursday. Students at private schools getting tax dollars will be required to take standardized testing and meet accreditation standards, but there will be a lot of flexibility for them in both categories.

Additionally, the board approved a bulk of other regulations for public schools stemming directly from the LEARNS Act. The rules still need approval from a legislative committee.


All schools that want money from the EFA must have been in operation for at least a year. Additionally, they must meet “accreditation requirements established by the State Board of Education, the Arkansas Nonpublic School Accrediting Association, Inc., or its successor.”

The Arkansas Nonpublic School Accrediting Association is a nonprofit based in Rogers. It was established in the 1980s to accredit private schools.

The group has a six-page list of required school standards. They run the gamut of rules from mandated administrator positions, course offerings and health and safety standards.

Schools are allowed to use a different accreditation model than the ANSAA. Any chosen accrediting association has to have existed for three years, and require an onsite review of schools it oversees at least every seven years.

There is a list of other approved private school accrediting organizations on the Department of Education's website.

Schools participating in EFAs have to get re-accredited every year. They also need a Certified Public Accountant verifying that they are in good financial standing. These private schools have to comply with the Civil Rights Act of 1964, have their teachers complete a background check with fingerprinting, and have expulsion procedures for students.

If schools get money from the EFA, the Arkansas Department of Education can conduct site visits and random audits.


Private schools getting public money have to administer some kind of testing, under the new rules.

The rules define this as “a nationally recognized norm-referenced test approved by the State Board, that measures, at minimum, achievement in literacy and mathematics and provides information that compares the performance of students against the performance of a sample of students from across the country.”

Darrell Smith is the Education Department's Assistant Commissioner for School Choice and Parent Empowerment. At the meeting, he said about 60% of schools are taking Iowa Basic Skills or NWEA Measure of Academic Progress assessments. This is also called the MAP. A list of other tests being used across the state was presented to the committee.

The rules allow for students to be taken out of an EFA program "who consistently fails to demonstrate academic achievement or growth on a valid and reliable assessment relative to the assessment’s scale.” But, schools have to create an intervention plan for the student. This is followed by a probationary period and procedures for the student to appeal.

Public Schools

During the meeting, the board approved other standards for public schools. Literacy screeners were added for students in kindergarten through third grade. Schools also have to use “The Science of Reading,” a phonics-based reading curriculum.

Part of Arkansas LEARNS increased Career and Technical Education in Arkansas schools. It’s mandated for students in grades six through eight to be taught “career awareness.” After that, students create a “success plan” for high school. The new rules say “high schools must offer at least one career-ready pathway.”

The plan is to be annually reviewed with the help of parents and school counselors. These rules are designed to “ensure that the student will qualify for admission to postsecondary educational institutions or enter the workforce.”

Josie Lenora is the Politics/Government Reporter for Little Rock Public Radio.