Arkansas board takes up emergency rules on private school voucher payments

Subiaco Abbey Academy is shown in this November 2006 file photo. (Arkansas Democrat-Gazette file photo)

The Arkansas Board of Education will consider emergency rules today establishing a process for distributing state funding to the private and parochial schools that are participating in the new Educational Freedom Account voucher program.

The 1½ pages of draft emergency rules on the payment process are separate from a full set of draft rules that are expected to be presented to the Education Board in the coming weeks. That full set of rules will ultimately replace emergency rules approved in July for carrying out the entire Educational Freedom Account program.

The voucher program is one component of the multi-part Arkansas LEARNS Act or Act 237 of 2023 that Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders championed as a way to overhaul public education in the state.

In this first year of a three-year phase-in of the program, eligible students are those who are in kindergarten, have special education needs, previously attended F-graded public schools, are children of active military personnel or have experienced homelessness or foster care.

As of Sept. 20, a total of 4,795 students were using the new Educational Freedom Accounts to offset their tuition and other costs at 94 private and parochial schools that have applied and been approved to accept the state-funded vouchers. Additional students were in different stages of applying, and some had been disapproved. Eligibility criteria expand for next year, and in 2025-2026, any student can apply for the vouchers.

The Educational Freedom Accounts will provide up to $6,672 or $7,413 in state funding for private school costs this year. 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.

The Arkansas Elementary and Secondary Education Division in a Sept. 30 report to lawmakers projected the cost of the accounts to be $32.5 million for this school year.

"Once families and participating schools have been approved to participate in the Educational Freedom Account (EFA) program, the Department of Education shall continue to make quarterly payments on behalf of the approved students and families to the approved participating schools or service providers," say the draft emergency rules going before the Education Board at its meeting that starts at 9 a.m. today.

"The department shall make four equal payments in quarterly installments from the participating student's educational freedom account to the participating school or service provider."

The draft rules direct that a third party payment organization set up accounts for the students who have been approved for the program.

The approved private schools or service providers, such as a supplier of uniforms or school supplies, must produce itemized invoices of what the families owe them.

The families are to verify the expenses and submit requests for payment to the third party vendor.

That third party payment organization will distribute the payment to the school or service provider -- following review and approval of the expense request by the state Education Department.

The third party vendor being used is ClassWallet, which is described by the state as a digital wallet and accounts payable platform.

The state reported to lawmakers in recent days that $7.1 million has been expended for the accounts program: 97.3% for tuition, fees and supplies at private schools and 2.5% on transaction processing fees.

The draft emergency rules conclude by saying "that immediate peril to the welfare of the State, specifically students and parents, will result without emergency promulgation of these rules."