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More than six times as many students are participating in the state's Succeed Scholarship Program this school year than took part in the state-funded voucher system last year.

A total of 185 students are on track this school year to receive state aid to pay up to $6,713 in their tuitions to as many as 31 private schools, Courtney Salas-Ford, an attorney for the Arkansas Department of Education, said Friday.

That is up from 27 students who received the state-funded tuition or vouchers in the inaugural 2016-17 school year for the Succeed Scholarships.

Salas-Ford attributed the increase from the first-year numbers to three 2017 state laws that amended or expanded the eligibility for students and private schools to use the state-funded private school tuition program.

The program was originally authorized by Act 1178 of 2015. Initially, it was mostly for students who had attended public school in the previous year and had been identified as having a disability that required the special education services described in their existing Individual Education Plans.

The 2015 law also required the private schools to be accredited by a school accrediting agency and to employ teachers with bachelor degrees, including at least one who is a state-licensed special education teacher.

Act 327 passed earlier this year allows private schools that are in the process of becoming accredited to participate in the program, stating that they must be accredited within four years.

Act 637 enables a public school superintendent to waive the requirement that a student be previously enrolled in a public school.

And Act 894 allows up to 20 scholarships to be awarded to students who do not have an individual education plan but are in foster care and living in a group home or facility.

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Jay Barth of Little Rock, chairman of the state Board of Education, and Education Board member Diane Zook of Melbourne said at last week's state Education Board meeting that they had concerns about the program.

"It's obvious this is an introduction of a voucher program in the state and it was an attempt to do it in a small way, but I feel a very vulnerable student population became the focus of this program," Barth said. "I personally think that is problematic. Once a private school enters the scene, many things go away, including achievement scores. We don't know the performance of these students."

Salas-Ford said the law does require the private schools to give each Succeed student a standardized test, but the state does not receive the results from the tests.

Zook said there are very few private schools in the state that specialize in working with children with disabilities -- in part because public schools have done a good job with that.

"You have given up a child's civil rights -- the parents have -- and the [students] may or may not be getting the services they need as far as speech or occupational therapy or physical therapy," Zook said." They may or may not be taught by an in-house special education teacher and they may or may not be in a school that fully understands the social aspects and all the other things that go into a special education program."

She said a special education program is far more than "talking louder and slower" to students with disabilities.

"We as the state have no ability based on this law to look after these children," said Zook who spent much of her career working in the special education field.

Salas-Ford said that while the law on the Succeed program does call for families to sign a statement releasing the state from the responsibility of educating their children, that is the case any time a student enrolls in a private school.

The Reform Alliance, a Walton Family Foundation funded organization, is the third-party operator of the tuition program. The alliance serves as an intermediary between the state Education Department and the scholarship recipient families and schools.

Arkansas Education Commissioner Johnny Key told the Education Board members Friday that Reform Alliance leaders are willing to address Education Board concerns at a future meeting. A telephone message left Friday afternoon at the Alliance office for either Laurie Lee or Valerie Perkins was not returned.

According to the numbers reported by Ford, 151 students are receiving state funding for tuition for the full 2017-18 school year. An additional 34 have signed up for the coming spring 2018 semester, for a total of 185.

Of the 185, there are 171 students who have individual education plans that detail the services needed to address their disabilities -- as required by the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. Fourteen of the students are in foster care, which makes them legally eligible for the state-paid private school tuition.

Of the total 185, there are 85 who required a superintendent waiver of the legal requirement that the student be enrolled in the previous year in a public school.

Salas-Ford's report listed 31 private schools that are eligible to participate in the state-paid tuition program, four of which are in the process of obtaining accreditation. Those are Access Group in Little Rock, Bentonville Christian Academy, Compass Academy in Conway and Hannah School in North Little Rock.

Access Group, with 31 students receiving state-paid tuition, and Compass Academy, with 26 students participating in the tuition program, are the two schools among the 31 with the greatest numbers of state-paid tuition students. Both schools specialize in serving students with disabilities.

Those two schools are followed by the Prism Education Center in Fayetteville -- 16 -- and Arkansas Christian Academy in Bryant, 15, and Easter Seals- The Academy at Riverdale, 13, in terms of Succeed students enrolled.

The disabilities of participating students include a mix of autism, intellectual disabilities, other health impairments, speech language impairments and brain injury.

Metro on 12/18/2017

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