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State lawmakers approve emergency rules for private school vouchers under LEARNS Act

Stopgap measures address private schooling accounts by Neal Earley | July 18, 2023 at 7:31 a.m.
Courtney Salas-Ford, Chief of Staff at the Arkansas Department of Education, left, and Andres Rhodes, Chief legal Counsel for the Arkansas Department of Education, answer questions from members of the Joint Committee on Education at the State Capitol on Monday, July 17, 2023. (Arkansas Democrat-Gazette/Stephen Swofford)

State lawmakers endorsed Monday emergency rules for private school vouchers under the LEARNS Act as the state readies for the law to take effect in about two weeks.

The regulations that cleared the legislative panel Monday are a stopgap measure to have rules in place when the LEARNS Act, a law overhauling public education, is expected to take effect Aug. 1. Meanwhile, the Arkansas Department of Education is working on developing permanent rules for vouchers, which will include public comment and input from working groups set up by the department.

Last week, the Arkansas Board of Education approved the emergency rules, sending them to lawmakers for review.

"These are emergency rules to simply have something in place by the beginning of the school year," said Andres Rhodes, chief legal counsel for the Department of Education.

Vouchers, referred to as Educational Freedom Accounts under the LEARNS Act, will be worth $6,672, or about 90%, of what public schools receive from the state in per-pupil funding from the previous school year.

About 3,400 students have applied for an Educational Freedom Account, with 2,000 having their applications accepted so far, according to the Department of Education. If every student accepted into the program uses their voucher funds, the program will cost the state $13 million in the first year, Rhodes said.

"If we would have had 3,000 [applications] I would have done a back handspring," said Laurie Lee, chairman of the Reform Alliance, a group that advocates for school choice, in reaction to the reported number of applications for vouchers.

The rules lawmakers gave their approval to Monday mirror some of the regulations set out in the LEARNS Act for the voucher program, such as eligibility and testing requirements. The program, which will be phased in over three years, will be open only to students seeking to attend a private school in the first year. None of the rules legislators endorsed Monday relate to home-schooled students, who are not eligible for a voucher in the first year of the program.

Only certain students will be eligible in the first year of the program, including those who:

Enroll in kindergarten for the upcoming school year.

Attended an F-rated public school or a district considered to be in Level 5 of the state's accountability system.

Have been homeless or in foster care.

Have a parent in active-duty military service.

Participated in the Succeed Scholarship program during the last school year.

Have an eligible disability.

So far about 83 private schools have applied to be part of the program, with more applications pending, Rhodes told lawmakers. Private schools that accept Educational Freedom Accounts also will have to administer a "nationally norm-referenced test" that measures literacy and math skills.

Private schools that participate in the voucher program and lose accreditation or fail to follow the emergency rules would not be able to keep the state funding they receive, Rhodes and Courtney Salas-Ford, Arkansas Department of Education chief of staff, told the joint committee.

In the first year of the voucher program, up to 1.5% of public school students in the state in the past school year -- roughly 6,000 -- can participate. A legislative subcommittee is scheduled to vote to set aside $15 million in restricted reserve funds for the Educational Freedom Accounts today.

The department may also withhold 5% of the funding for each account for costs associated with program administration. Under the proposed rules, private schools will be paid quarterly, meaning if a student were to leave a private school under the voucher program, the state funding would be returned to a pool earmarked for Educational Freedom Accounts, controlled by the Department of Education.

Since the emergency rules are temporary, they only cover the first year of the Educational Freedom Accounts program. Even with the temporary rules, the Arkansas Legislative Committee -- a group of state lawmakers who meet while the General Assembly is not in session to review regulations -- still has to approve the new guidelines.

Sen. Linda Chesterfield, D-Little Rock, said she still had reservations about some of the emergency rules for the voucher program, despite voting in favor of it, because of concerns over minimum requirements for teachers at private schools that accept Educational Freedom Accounts.

While public school teachers are required to have a bachelor's degree, those teaching at private schools that participate in the voucher program are required to have only what the Department of Education considers to be "equivalent documented experience" to a four-year degree.

"That's not enough for me to vote against it. You have to have some rules, you've got the law in place, so I'm fine with that," Chesterfield said. "But I am very much concerned about that rule, without having a floor of accountability for those who would teach our children."

Olivia Gardner, director of education policy at Arkansas Advocates for Children & Families, said she is concerned that under the emergency rules, children who enroll in a private school using a voucher will lose their rights to a "free and appropriate public education," a federal standard that says students with disabilities are entitled to a public education that caters to their needs.

Lee, a supporter of the LEARNS Act, said parents can always opt their children out of a private school that they feel doesn't adequately cater to a student with special needs.

"You can't do that if you're a poor family in a public school," Lee said.

Gardner said she also has concerns about emergency rules saying a private school that accepts vouchers "shall not be required to alter its creed, practices, admissions policy, or curriculum." However, private schools that accept Educational Freedom Accounts will still be required to follow the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which bans discrimination on the basis of race.

A lawsuit challenging when the LEARNS Act can take effect has delayed the implementation process, previously pausing the application process for Educational Freedom Accounts.

On June 30, Pulaski County Circuit Judge Herbert Wright found lawmakers failed to follow the Arkansas Constitution when passing the LEARNS Act's emergency clause, a legislative move to make bills take effect immediately upon passage.

While the case has been appealed to the Arkansas Supreme Court, the education law won't take effect until Aug. 1.

Information for this article was contributed by Cynthia Howell of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.

Print Headline: Voucher rules clear panel of lawmakers


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