School enrollment in state continues seesaw

LEARNS Act cited with role in trend

FILE — This 2015 file photo shows public school buses. (AP Photo/File)
FILE — This 2015 file photo shows public school buses. (AP Photo/File)

Annual enrollment among Arkansas' public, private and home schools continues to seesaw, a trend that began with the covid-19 global pandemic and continues in part as the result of changes in Arkansas law.

Arkansas' public school enrollment -- including charter schools -- in this 2023-24 school year has dipped to 475,207 in kindergarten-through-12th grades, according to the state's Division of Elementary and Secondary Education. The count of home school students also has dropped. Private school enrollment appears to have increased.

State lawmakers in early 2023 approved Act 237 or the LEARNS Act, which authorized the greatly expanded use of taxpayer funds for private school tuition.

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.

The accounts provide up to $6,672 per eligible student to be used for tuition and other private school expenses -- unless the students were part of the now discontinued Succeed Scholarship Program. The former Succeed Scholarship students qualify for $7,413 in private school aid.

Some 94 private schools applied and were approved by the Arkansas Education Department in 2023 to be able to accept the public funding. Approximately 5,000 students who met eligibility requirements -- including many who were already enrolled in private schools last year -- are getting the tuition aid. Eligibility requirements will expand in the coming 2024-25 school year and all students will be eligible for tuition assistance in 2025-26, as the result of the LEARNS Act.

Arkansas' public school enrollment -- including charter schools -- in this 2023-24 school year of 475,207 compares to last year's larger number of 476,579.

That 476,579 in October 2022 was up from 473,861 in October 2021 and 473,004 in October 2020. Before the start of the covid pandemic in March 2020, the state's public school count was approaching 480,000 with a count of 479,432.

The Springdale School District is the state's largest traditional school district in terms of enrollment with 21,712. The Little Rock School District is the second largest with 19,952. Bentonville is third with 19,137 students and Rogers is fourth with 15,529.

In Arkansas, as of late November, there were 28,557 students who are being taught in home schools, Kimberly Mundell, director of communications for the Arkansas Division of Elementary and Secondary Education, said.

That number, which is subject to change as the 2023-24 school year progresses, is down from the 29,779 home school students reported to the state for the 2022-23 school year.

A detailed annual report for the 2022-23 school year -- the last completed school year -- has not yet been compiled and posted to the division's website, Mundell said, but she did provide the total number for the past year.

The annual report typically breaks down the total number by county, district and grade level.

Both of this year's and last school year's totals are less than the 30,205 home school students reported for the 2021-22 school year and the 30,267 in the 2020-21 school year.

The annual number of home school students exceeds the enrollment in any one of the state's traditional or open-enrollment charter school systems.

Home schools are not public schools. Home-school students are those whose parents or guardians have opted to assume the full responsibility of educating their children. Parents who home school their students must register their intent to home school with the state.

As the result of Act 237, home school families within the next couple of school years will be eligible for state funding to offset educational costs.

In regard to private schools this school year, there are 21,240 students recorded as enrollees in the 103 private elementary and secondary schools that are members or associate members of the Arkansas Nonpublic School Accrediting Association.

Many but not all of the private and parochial schools in the state are affiliated with the accrediting association.

The 21,240 number of private school students reported for this school year is greater than the 19,932 private school enrollment in 95 private schools reported in the 2022-23 school year.

And in the previous 2021-22 school year there were 18,920 students in 96 member and associate member private schools. That compares with 98 schools and 19,045 students in the 2019-20 school school year, which was prior to the covid-19 pandemic.

Little Rock Christian Academy is the largest of the accrediting association member schools with 1,616 students. Shiloh Christian Academy in Springdale has 1,474 students. Pulaski Academy in Little Rock has an enrollment of 1,308.