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Virtual town hall to discuss Arkansas school voucher plan set for March 29

by Arkansas Democrat-Gazette | March 22, 2023 at 3:11 a.m.
Secretary of education Jacob Oliva talks to the press during a signing ceremony for the LEARNS act in the second floor rotunda of the State Capitol on Wednesday, March 8, 2023.(Arkansas Democrat-Gazette/Stephen Swofford)

Arkansas Education Secretary Jacob Oliva will speak at a virtual town hall March 29 about the Arkansas Children's Educational Freedom Account Program, which provides publicly funded tuition and supply vouchers for private and home school students.

"The secretary will present information about the parent experience of the program and will also take questions," according to an announcement about the virtual town hall from The Reform Alliance, which is hosting the event.

The Educational Freedom Account Program is part of Arkansas LEARNS, or Act 237, Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders' initiative to try and revamp prekindergarten through 12th grade education in the state. LEARNS stands for literacy, empowerment, accountability, readiness, networking and safety.

Act 237 includes raising starting teacher salaries from $36,000 to $50,000; offering incentive pay to teachers; eliminating the Teachers Fair Dismissal Act; expanding the availability of publicly funded tuition and supply vouchers for private and home school students; streamlining and expanding access to early childhood education; retaining some struggling readers in third grade; and creating a career education pathway to high school graduation.

The Educational Freedom Account Program for Arkansas students would be phased in over three years, starting in the 2023-2024 school year for the most at-risk students. By 2025-2026, all students could access the taxpayer-funded accounts for use in offsetting private school tuition and other education-related costs.

Laurie Lee, chairperson of The Reform Alliance, has said the Educational Freedom Account Program is a move away from traditional voucher programs.

"We're moving away from vouchers, which work as a single, static payment for tuition, to a more flexible tool that empowers parents to individualize purchases for their child, beginning with essentials like tuition and then expanding to needs like tutoring, technology or other essential educational needs," Lee said Feb. 20, the day the LEARNS act was publicly introduced by the governor. Sanders signed the act into law March 8.

The virtual town hall comes at a time when state education officials have said rules and regulations to carry out components of Arkansas LEARNS will need to be developed.

Oliva has said the process of developing the rules -- which must ultimately be approved by the Arkansas Board of Education and reviewed by the governor's office -- will be "clear and transparent."

The virtual town hall will take place via Zoom and registration is required:

Registration will provide a link to join the March 29 event, which is scheduled to begin at 7 p.m.

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


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