School voucher program growing across Arkansas

Posted: November 2, 2017 at 1:08 a.m.

Dozens of special education students across Arkansas are using state money to attend private schools as part of a new voucher program.

Private schools

Thirty private schools across Arkansas have been approved to accept state-funded tuition, or vouchers, from certain students. The approved schools include five in Northwest Arkansas:

• Bentonville Christian Academy

• Fayetteville Christian School

• Prism Education Center (Fayetteville)

• St. Joseph Catholic School (Fayetteville)

• Shiloh Christian School (Springdale)

Source: The Reform Alliance

The Succeed Scholarship program has 163 students attending 30 private schools, according to The Reform Alliance, a Little Rock-based nonprofit organization that administers the program. Five of the schools approved to host Succeed Scholarship students are in Northwest Arkansas.

[EMAIL UPDATES: Get free breaking news updates and daily newsletters with top headlines delivered to your inbox]

Qualifying students may apply up to $6,713 of state money per year toward tuition and fees at one of the approved private schools. The figure is the amount the state will pay public school districts for each student they enroll this school year.

The deadline for scholarship applications for the second semester of this school year is Nov. 11. Interested families may learn more by calling The Reform Alliance at 501-244-9028 or visiting TheReformAlliance.org.

The Succeed Scholarship was established under Act 1178 of the 2015 legislative session. It applied initially only to students with an individualized education plan, which is required for every student who receives special education services. The law also stipulated students, except children of active military personnel, must have attended a public school for at least one full academic year.

Additional bills passed during the 2017 legislative session opened the program to foster children and allowed students to bypass the one year of public school requirement if the superintendent of their resident school district allows it.

Another bill passed this year eased restrictions on accreditation private schools must obtain to accept Succeed Scholarship students.

Richard Abernathy, executive director of the Arkansas Association of Educational Administrators, said he’s troubled by the thought of sending students who have the most needs to nonaccredited schools.

“There’s no accountability on those schools. That’s just not good,” Abernathy said.

Abernathy said it appears the state is heading toward a system of vouchers without restrictions, which he fears will harm public schools.

“Public education makes up America, and if we let it decline, I think you’ll see America decline as well,” he said.

Laurie Lee, chairman of the board of The Reform Alliance, disputes the notion that supporting programs like Succeed Scholarship means disavowing public schools.

“The majority of Arkansas students will always be educated in public schools,” Lee said. “There’s just a certain number of children who aren’t able to succeed in that kind of environment. Do we just relegate them to failure because we want to protect the status quo? That seems immoral to me.”

The program gives all families, regardless of income level, an educational option they might not otherwise have because of the cost of private school, Lee said.

“The wealthy have opportunities. They can get a tutor or whatever they need to do. But those folks who don’t have money, their kids are kind of stuck where they are,” she said.

Private schools seeking approval to accept Succeed Scholarship students must fill out and submit a four-page application to the Arkansas Department of Education. They must verify they employ or contract with at least one teacher who has a valid license in special education issued by the state Board of Education, among other requirements.

Qualifying schools must meet the accreditation requirements set by the state Board of Education, the Arkansas Nonpublic School Accrediting Association or another accrediting association recognized by the state as providing services to severely disabled people.

A tweak to the law this year allows nonaccredited schools to participate if they are applying for accreditation and gives them up to four years to obtain it.

Sixteen of the 30 schools approved for the Success Scholarship program fall under the Catholic Diocese of Little Rock’s umbrella, including St. Joseph School in Fayetteville.

The diocese oversees 27 schools with a combined 6,700 students. Vernell Bowen, superintendent of the diocese’s schools, didn’t have a count of how many of the schools’ students are on the Success Scholarship but said the program hasn’t resulted in much of an enrollment increase.

“We have a very diverse population, and we’ve been accepting kids with disabilities for a long time in our schools, but the funding has been very helpful to the parents,” Bowen said.

One change Bowen would like to see is elimination of the rule non-foster children must have an individualized education plan to qualify for the scholarship. The individualized education plan is specific to public schools. Special education students currently enrolled in a private school therefore can’t apply for the scholarship, Bowen said.

Diocese schools have developed their own plans for special education students, but the law doesn’t recognize them, Bowen said.

The scholarships pay for tuition up to $6,713 per year but not more than what each school charges. Tuition for one child at St. Joseph School is $4,972 per year for Catholic families and $7,162 per year for non-Catholic families, according to the school’s website.

Bentonville Christian Academy has one student receiving the scholarship, but about 11 percent of the school’s students receive special education services, said Clay Hendrix, the school’s headmaster. The school, which serves prekindergarten through grade six, contracts with a third party for its special education services.

Hendrix, who previously served as an administrator in the Springdale and Lincoln school districts, said private schools had been attractive to families with special needs students even before the Success Scholarship came along.

“And with that scholarship, that is going to increase,” Hendrix said. “I think we’ll see more of those students.”

Jason Ross, headmaster of Providence Academy in Rogers, said he hasn’t applied to be a Succeed Scholarship school because Providence lacks the resources to meet the needs of many special education students.

Dave Perozek can be reached at dperozek@nwadg.com or on Twitter @NWADaveP.