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Public comments divided on rules for LEARNS Act’s private school voucher program

by Cynthia Howell | August 26, 2023 at 5:31 a.m.
Audience members at a public hearing at the Arch Ford Education Building in Little Rock on Friday listen to public comments on draft rules for carrying out the private school voucher program created by the LEARNS Act. (Arkansas Democrat-Gazette/Cynthia Howell)

A hearing Friday evening on draft rules for carrying out the state's new Educational Freedom Account Program drew almost 40 people who were split on the taxpayer-funded vouchers for private schools.

The 14-page set of draft rules was initially approved for public review by the Arkansas Board of Education in July after Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders and legislators in March passed the 145-page LEARNS Act, or Act 237, that revamps pre-kindergarten-through-12th grade education in the state.

LEARNS stands for literacy, empowerment, accountability, readiness, networking and safety.

The draft rules on the Educational Freedom Accounts section of the new law will now be reviewed and possibly revised in light of public comments that will be taken by the Arkansas Division of Elementary and Secondary Education through Monday.

Ultimately, the draft rules will be re-submitted to the state Education Board and then to the Legislative Council for final action.

The final rules will replace existing, emergency rules for carrying out the law.

The Educational Freedom Accounts provide $6,672 or $7,618 this year to eligible students to be used for private school tuition and other school-related costs. Students eligible for the higher dollar amount are those who participated last school year in a smaller publicly funded voucher system primarily for students with special education needs. That now-defunct Succeed Scholarship Program has been absorbed by the Educational Freedom Accounts program that is being phased in over three years.

This year, eligible students are those who meet certain criteria such as being in kindergarten, having special education needs or having previously attended an F-graded public school. Beginning in 2025-26, all Arkansas students will be eligible for the taxpayer-supported vouchers to state-approved private schools.

A total of 4,813 students have applied and been approved for the Educational Freedom Accounts as of Friday. An additional 531 student applications are pending. Forty-one percent of those approved qualify because they have a disability, while 13% were Succeed Scholarship students and 13% are kindergarten pupils. Seven percent have experienced foster care or homelessness, 1% are former students in F-graded schools and 4% are children of active-duty military personnel.

The vouchers are equal to 90% of the traditional state aid guaranteed per traditional public school student in the previous school year.

"I am just a citizen, but our family has been able to benefit from this program," Candace Hellman told a panel of state education agency attorneys who conducted the public hearing Friday.

"We are very much in favor of it," Hellman said. "One of the most beautiful things about this program is that people who couldn't previously afford to go to private school now may be able to afford to have their tuition paid in full, depending on which school they choose to attend."

Laurie Lee and about a half-dozen other representatives of the Reform Alliance organization that advocates for providing school-choice options to low-income families and special education students told the panel that they support the draft rules.

Lee, chairman of the organization, said the alliance helped some 1,500 students transition from the Succeed Scholarship Program to the Educational Freedom Accounts this summer. Lee presented to the panel a stack of letters she said were from parents in support of the draft rules.

Dallas Green, an advocate for education services for the state's dyslexic students; Michele Linch, former executive director of the Arkansas State Teachers Association; and Karen Maynard, chairman of the Pulaski County Chapter of Moms for Liberty, voiced support for the draft rules.

Linch highlighted accountability provisions in the law and rules that call for students who attain vouchers to take state-approved end-of-year exams.

The testing provisions drew objections from other audience members who said private schools that accept the state funding should be required to give their students the same exams required of public school students. This year that will be the Arkansas Teaching and Learning Assessment System, or ATLAS.

Veronica McClane, a parent and a leader of the Friends of Public Education Network, said the Educational Freedom Account Program should be renamed to reflect that it is a voucher program. She called the educational accounts "a voucher scam" and "a money grab" that takes away opportunities for disadvantaged students and puts public dollars into private businesses.

"Any school that accepts public money should be held to the same standard," she said. "This should include full financial reporting of the use of the money for public viewing.

"Every school should take any student using the same admission standards as a public school. Every student in a school must have the same testing, and those scores for the entire school -- not just the voucher students -- must be published in the same manner as public schools," McClane said.

The LEARNS Act and the draft rules call for private schools approved to accept Educational Freedom Account money to give participating students exams that are required for public school students or a nationally norm-referenced test in at least literacy and math.

The draft rules call for the state to provisionally approve a test for use this school year if the private school previously administered it to students during one or more of the previous three school years.

McClane called for private schools to limit their tuition rates to the amount of the state vouchers.

"They shouldn't be taking that money and still making it impossible for a child to attend," she said.

McClane and Julia Taylor, a former public teacher, were among the speakers Friday who objected to the rulemaking process. McClane voiced disappointment that Arkansas Education Secretary Jacob Oliva and others who would decide on the final rules were not present. She asked for assurances that the comments made Friday would be considered by the drafters of the revised rules.

Taylor said that while members of the public were invited last spring to apply to help craft the rules, "not many people who disagree with the LEARNS Act are on those committees."

"Another huge concern," Taylor said, is that students with disabilities who participate in the voucher program will waive their rights to "a free and appropriate public education," according to the draft rules. She called that reprehensible and questioned its legality.

Still others who objected to the draft rules were community activist Anika Whitfield and Little Rock Central High teacher Kimberly Crutchfield. Crutchfield said the Educational Freedom Accounts don't constitute a true choice program because they don't necessarily fund the full amount of tuition at private schools.

"Stop playing politics with children's lives," Crutchfield told the panel.

In this first year of the vouchers as many as 1.5% of the state's public school enrollment in this past school year -- or about 6,000 students -- can receive a voucher.

The state Education Department can withhold up to 5% of each account for program administration, according to the emergency rules.

Students eligible for this first year of the program are those who:

Have a disability that requires an Individualized Education Program.

Participated this past year in the smaller and now-discontinued Succeed Scholarship Program.

Are children of one or more parents in active-duty military service.

Experienced foster care.

Experienced homelessness.

Attended an F-graded public school or a district in Level 5 of the state accountability system.

Are a first-time kindergarten student.

The student eligibility criteria will be expanded in the 2024-25 school year, and in 2025-26 all students will be eligible to apply for the vouchers.

The draft rules not only deal with student eligibility and responsibilities in the program but also list the criteria for a private school to participate.

A total of 94 private schools, including one in Germantown, Tenn., have been approved to date, state officials have reported.

The schools, for example, have to be accredited or in the process of achieving accreditation by private school accrediting organizations. The schools must sign assurances that they have been in operation for at least a year, are financially sound, do not discriminate, and employ teachers who have a bachelor's degree or equivalent experience.

Private school employees who have contact with students must clear a background check before working with Educational Freedom Account students, and all school employees must comply with a requirement for fingerprinting by May 30, 2024.

"Nothing shall be construed to expand the regulatory authority of the Department to impose additional regulations on participating schools and service providers beyond those expressly set out in these Rules to enforce the requirements of the EFA Program," the draft rules state.

"A participating school or service provider shall not be required to alter its creed, practices, admissions policy, or curriculum to receive approval from the Department or to accept payments from an EFA," they state.

Print Headline: Public remarks split on rules for vouchers


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