The families of 324 kindergarten-through-12th grade students at Little Rock Christian Academy are accessing public taxpayer funds to pay tuition at the 1,665-student private school, according to a new state Department of Education report to lawmakers.
Similarly, 224 students at the 792-student Central Arkansas Christian School in North Little Rock are holders of the state-funded Educational Freedom Accounts that are worth at least $6,672 per student for tuition and other private-school-related costs.
There are 209 Educational Freedom Account-financed students at the 1,480-student Shiloh Christian School in Springdale, 190 Educational Freedom Account students out of 1,218 at Pulaski Academy in Little Rock, and 175 student account holders out of the 812 students enrolled at Episcopal Collegiate School in Little Rock.
In all, as of Sept. 20, there are 4,795 students statewide using what is projected to be $32.5 million this school year in public funding for private school costs.
"The Office of School Choice and Parental Empowerment is thrilled to announce a successful launch of Education Freedom Accounts, evidenced by the 4,795 (and counting) participants who have been empowered by EFAs," the 21-page "Education Freedom Account Annual Report" to lawmakers states.
The document, dated Sept. 30, was first reported on Thursday night by the Arkansas Advocate online news organization.
"Strong family interest has been met with outstanding support from Arkansas' private schools," the report also says.
It adds: "Looking forward, the Office of School Choice and Parental Empowerment is poised to continue supporting Arkansas' families in identifying and attaining high-quality schools for their children."
The first annual report about the school vouchers to the Arkansas Legislative Council and the Senate and House committees on education found:
Most -- 95% -- of the Educational Freedom Account holders were reported as being either a first-time kindergarten student or enrolled in a private school upon application for the Educational Freedom Accounts.
Students with disabilities make up the largest share of participating students -- 44%.
Kindergartners make up 31% of the participants.
Of the 685 students who were recipients of the smaller, publicly funded and now-discontinued Succeed Scholarship Program, 628 have transitioned to the Educational Freedom Accounts. Those former Succeed Scholarship students -- most of whom have disabilities -- are eligible for $7,413 each rather than the $6,672 per student.
The majority of the Educational Freedom Account Program families reside in Central Arkansas, 59%, and Northwest Arkansas, 16%.
April Reisma, president of the Arkansas Education Association teacher union, said the statistics on private school students show that the publicly funded tuition payments are not going to those families who cannot afford tuition.
"That number proves what we have been saying all along," Reisma said. "It overwhelmingly shows that we are giving public funds to students who were already enrolling or enrolled in private schools. This is not going to those 'most in need.'"
The Educational Freedom Accounts were created by the Arkansas LEARNS Act or Act 237 of 2023.
The 145-page act -- introduced and championed by Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders -- revamps public education in the state, with the establishment of the Educational Freedom Account Program being one of the most dramatic provisions.
Some of the other provisions in the act increased base pay for public school teachers from $36,000 to $50,000, eliminated the Teacher Fair Dismissal Act that provided job protections, created 150 literacy specialist jobs around the state, and called for retaining some third graders who are struggling readers.
The percentages of Arkansas students using state taxpayer money to meet part or all of their costs at 94 private schools range from 1% (one student out of 97 total) at the Madonna Learning Center in Germantown, Tenn., and 6% (one of 18 total students) at Cedar Heights Christian Academy in North Little Rock, to 100% of the 36 students at the Friendship Lab School for Dyslexia in Maumelle, and 97% of the 73 students at Easterseals Arkansas-The Academy at Riverdale in Little Rock.
Reisma said the information in the state report "should be deeply disturbing" to Arkansas taxpayers. In addition to the $32.5 million expected to go to the private schools, she noted that $176,853 is to go to the ClassWallet company for "processing fees" for managing the state funds to the private schools. That is money "that will be taken from our already underfunded public schools," she said.
PRIVATE SCHOOL ELIGIBILITY
The private schools had to apply and be approved by the Education Department to be able to accept the public funding. The 94 approved schools constitute about 70% of private schools in the state, the report says.
To qualify to accept the public funds, the schools had to provide assurances that they are accredited or are seeking accreditation from an accrediting agency.
The schools must sign assurances that they have been in operation for at least a year, are financially sound, and do not discriminate.
The schools further must employ teachers who have a bachelor's degree or have equivalent experience, and the schools must identify a nationally standardized test that they will give to their voucher-supported students and commit to reporting the results to the state every June.
"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," the emergency rules for carrying out the LEARNS Act state.
The report to lawmakers notes that the private schools must report to the state the norm-referenced tests they will administer to their students to qualify for the state funding.
The schools reported plans to use different assessments, with 37% saying they will use a suite of exams produced by the NWEA testing organization. Another 21% of schools selected the Iowa Tests of Basic Skills, 18% said they would rely on the ACT college entrance exam, and 10% named the Renaissance collection of exams. Still another 8% cited the SAT college entrance exam. Most schools did not specify the grades or subject areas that would be tested.
Arkansas Education Department leaders said in its report that the agency "is currently in the process of designing and implementing a new state assessment for the 2023-24 school year" and "staff is exploring the possibility of offering the new assessment to private schools who are interested in participating."
The Arkansas Teaching and Learning Assessment System, developed in conjunction with the Cambium Assessment company for the spring of 2024 and beyond, will replace the ACT Aspire exams given in each of grades three through 10 in math, literacy and science in the past seven years.
Reisma of the Arkansas Education Association argued that the private schools should be mandated to use the same test as the public school students.
Students in this first year of the voucher program are limited to those who are in kindergarten, attended a state F-graded school in the 2022-23 school year, have a disability that requires an Individualized Education Program, are children of active military personnel or have experienced homelessness or foster care.
The student eligibility criteria expand in 2024-25 to include students who previously attended D- and F-graded schools and/or are children of military veterans and emergency responders. All students will be eligible for the Educational Freedom Account funding in 2025-26. That includes home-schooled students.
While 4,795 students are receiving public funding for their private school enrollment as of Sept. 20, a greater total of 5,660 students applied for the funding.
Some of those applications were returned to families for more information or because students did not meet eligibility requirements. There are others who were approved but have not since indicated their enrollment or had enrollment confirmed by private schools.
There were seven students who have had their accounts closed and funds returned because they are no longer attending their private school or participating in the Educational Freedom Account Program.
Some $7 million has been spent on the Educational Freedom Account Program as of Sept. 20. A total of $32.5 million is the projected cost of the program this school year.
Traditional school districts that lose students to private schools won't feel a partial financial impact until 2024-25 and the full financial impact in the 2025-26 school years, the report states.
State funding to the traditional districts is based on the previous school year's enrollment count, but that first-year drop in state funding will be softened by the state's "declining enrollment funding."
Reisma said it would be more prudent to invest the public funds that will be directed to private schools in expanding opportunities in traditional public schools.
"Let's make the wise decision to fully invest in our public schools for our students' sake, and for the sake of the future of our state," she said.
The report states that the Education Department "is excited to continue delivering on this historic initiative for the remaining school year and looks forward to further development next school year and beyond."