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Northwest Arkansas' Shiloh Christian School is one of three private schools in the state approved to accept students through Arkansas' first voucher system, which begins this fall.

The Succeed Scholarship program allows students with special needs to apply up to $6,646 of state money per year toward tuition and fees at an approved private school. That $6,646 is the amount the state will pay public school districts for each student they enroll during the 2016-17 school year.

How to apply

An application for the Succeed Scholarship is available on The Reform Alliance’s website at www.TheReformAlliance.org.

Source: Staff report

To be eligible for the voucher, students must have an individualized education plan, which is required for every student who receives special education services.

Students, except those who are children of active military personnel, also must have attended a public school last year and be accepted into the private school they wish to attend.

The Reform Alliance, a Little Rock-based nonprofit organization, oversees the Succeed Scholarship program for the state.

"Arkansas remains the only state in the country where a voucher bill passed without a single dissenting vote," said Katie Clifford, executive director of The Reform Alliance.

That bill became Act 1178 when it passed last year. It stipulated scholarships would be awarded beginning with the 2016-17 school year.

Arkansas is joining 12 other states, plus the District of Columbia, that provide state-funded school vouchers to qualifying students, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

State Rep. Douglas House, R-North Little Rock, wrote the bill to create the Succeed Scholarship in 2015. House, speaking during a school choice rally in Little Rock in January, said he wrote the bill because he had a friend with two special needs children who weren't being adequately educated.

"When I saw what was happening to them, I said that's the answer -- they need to be able to take their children and put them in an environment where they can learn something and get through life the best they can," House said, according to a report from the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.

Shiloh Christian School officials couldn't be reached for comment. The school for grades preschool through 12 has campuses in Springdale and Rogers.

Besides Shiloh Christian, two other institutions -- Immaculate Conception Elementary School in Fort Smith and St. Edward Catholic School in Little Rock -- have been approved to accept vouchers, Clifford said.

"We know of several others that have submitted applications and about a dozen others planning to submit," she said.

There are 191 private schools in the state, according to The Reform Alliance. The Catholic Diocese of Little Rock oversees 26 schools that enroll nearly 7,000 students.

Vernell Bowen, superintendent of diocese schools, said one of the criteria for schools to participate in the voucher system is to have a special education teacher licensed through the state.

"That's pretty expensive," Bowen said. "You really can't afford to just hire that special ed person when you may not have many special ed students to serve anyway."

Northwest Arkansas' two Catholic schools -- St. Vincent de Paul School in Rogers and St. Joseph School in Fayetteville -- aren't applying to participate in the voucher system this year, Bowen said.

The amount of money provided through the program is either the tuition and fees for the private school or the state's funding payment for the year, whichever is less.

"Our schools charge a lot less tuition than it costs to educate the child, so we're not going to be getting the full amount from the state," Bowen said.

Exactly how many families have applied for a voucher for this school year is uncertain. Clifford said she knows of "several" that have submitted applications, but she had talked to about 200 parents within the past week about the process.

Beth Hall, a mother of three from Van Buren, is waiting to hear whether Van Buren Christian Academy will become eligible to accept vouchers this school year. The school applied to participate after she brought the program to the school's attention, she said.

Hall's daughter Mikaylea Hall, 13, attended Van Buren Christian Academy for a few months last year.

"She was doing good, then I lost my job and I couldn't afford it anymore," Beth Hall said.

The school's tuition is $2,750 for a year, according to its website.

Mikaylea has a learning disability that qualifies her for special education services. She was miserable at the public school she attended, mainly because of its size, Hall said.

"I think it's an awesome deal," Hall said about the Success Scholarship. "It's an opportunity for kids who couldn't otherwise go because they can't afford it."

Debbie Jones, superintendent of the Bentonville School District, agreed the Succeed Scholarship is a good thing.

"If a special education family feels they need a new environment, they should have options," Jones said.

She said she's not aware of any Bentonville family that has accepted a voucher yet.

"Within Bentonville School District, we have really comprehensive services" for special-education students, she said.

NW News on 08/02/2016

Print Headline: Arkansas embarks on school voucher program

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