A small but growing number of private elementary and secondary schools in Arkansas are enrolling students whose families will pay tuition with money they will get monthly from the state.
The Succeed Scholarships that make it possible for eligible students to attend qualified private schools are available for up to 100 students this school year.
The state-funded tuition, or voucher, program, which does not set any income limits for participating families, is a first for the state.
To qualify this year for the scholarships -- which are authorized by Act 1178 of 2015 -- students had to attend public schools last school year, unless they are children of families in military service. Additionally, the students must be identified as having a disability and needing special-education services as evidenced by their existing Individual Education Plans.
The private schools must be approved by the Arkansas Department of Education for students to attend with state aid of up to $6,646 a year per student. That is the same amount of money that the state guarantees per public school student this year.
To date, up to 10 schools in cities including Little Rock, Bryant, Texarkana, Fayetteville, Springdale and Fort Smith have qualified, and more are in the pipeline, said Katie Clifford, executive director of The Reform Alliance. That is 10 out of what Clifford said is a total of 191 private schools statewide.
The Reform Alliance is the third-party operator of the scholarship program -- an intermediary between the state Education Department and the scholarship recipient families and schools. Earlier this summer, the alliance mailed about 66,000 fliers to Arkansas households to alert people to the availability of the tuition program, Clifford said.
"We are working hard to get schools on board and students on board. Because it is such a new program, we are working hard to help people know that it exists and help people know what we can do," she said.
To qualify, the schools -- including religiously affiliated parochial schools -- must submit forms to the state specifying the grade levels and services the schools have available for students with disabilities. The schools also must certify that they employ only teachers with bachelor's degrees or higher and that at least one faculty member at a campus holds a current, state-issued license in special education.
The schools also must agree to annually administer a nationally recognized exam as established by the state Board of Education. The Education Board is to vote on a list of acceptable standardized tests at its meeting later this week.
"We've seen all types of learning differences come through," Clifford said about the more than 70 families -- two with more than one eligible child -- who have either enrolled a child or were working toward that as of late last week.
She listed attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and other categories of learning disabilities in a student as the bases for family interest.
"We have seen dyslexia. We have seen autism. We've talked to a parent whose child has a really strong vision impairment," she said. "It's great that all kinds of students can take advantage of the program."
Richard Abernathy, the executive director of the Arkansas Association of Educational Administrators, an organization of public school and school district leaders, said last week that his organization is very concerned about opening the door to state-funded vouchers, or tuition payments, and their potential to diminish support for public schools.
The administrators association opposed the Succeed Scholarship bill sponsored last year by Rep. Doug House, R-North Little Rock, Abernathy said. But because House worked with the association to incorporate certain safeguards, the association did not campaign for the bill's defeat.
The bill passed without a single vote against it in the House and Senate.
"One of the things that helped me was that they passed a similar bill in Oklahoma," Abernathy said. "I called my counterpart over there and asked him about what they were seeing. The impact was very minimal. So that was a reason why we just stepped back."
Still, Abernathy said, a state voucher doesn't mean the private school is free to a student. The voucher may be $6,000 and the tuition $10,000. That $4,000 cost would keep some students from attending -- segregating students by income.
"That's just wrong. Yes, we have major concerns with vouchers," he said.
Clifford said that for some schools the tuition is less than the $6,646 per year -- the student only gets the amount of the tuition in those cases. In a couple of instances, a school has agreed to waive the tuition cost above $6,646 or seek grants to fund the difference for the student.
The state sends the program money to the alliance, which will verify that the students remain enrolled and then distribute the funds to the families to make tuition payments.
Andie Plymale, principal of Union Christian Academy in Fort Smith, said she and her faculty began about six years ago to provide extra support and services to students with learning differences such as dyslexia and ADHD so they can be better prepared for entrance into a university or a career.
Union Christian, like some of the other approved schools, draws from the local public school district for services such as speech and occupational therapy for students, but it also has its own faculty that provides services to special-needs students.
Staff members at the Fort Smith school learned of the Succeed Scholarship Program through a newspaper article, which led to the school applying for and receiving state approval, the principal said.
"We are very excited because we have done this for a bit and now people in the community are going to have the opportunity to be able to take advantage of the program we have," Plymale said.
"We do believe everyone is special. Everyone is created for a purpose. We really do enjoy the opportunity to partner with families to help those students grow and become all they can be."
The school has not yet enrolled any Succeed Scholarship students but is working with two families who have indicated interest, Plymale said. In a third case, the student's need for resources exceeded what the school could provide, she said.
At the end of last week, a total of nine schools were listed on the Arkansas Department of Education's website as having been approved to accept Succeed Scholarship students. Besides Union Christian Academy, which can serve kindergarten through 12th grades in the Succeed Scholarship Program, the schools are:
• St. Edward Catholic School in Little Rock, which has services for kindergarten through fourth grade.
• Immaculate Conception School in Fort Smith, which has services for kindergarten through sixth grade.
• Shiloh Christian School in Springdale, with services for first through 12th grades.
• Trinity Catholic Junior High School in Fort Smith, with services for grades seven through nine.
• St. John's Catholic School in Hot Springs, with services for kindergarten through eighth grades.
• Arkansas Christian Academy in Bryant, with services for kindergarten through 12th grade.
• Fayetteville Christian School, with services for kindergarten through 12th grade.
• Trinity Christian School in Texarkana, Ark., with services for kindergarten through 12th grade.
Clifford said Friday afternoon that St. Boniface Catholic School in Fort Smith was just approved. It was not yet on the Education Department's website.
Each of the schools approved to date is accredited by the Arkansas Nonpublic School Accrediting Association. A school can be accredited by an organization other than the Arkansas organization, but the school must go through the extra step of being approved by the Arkansas Board of Education, Clifford said.
Clifford said some schools have been turned down because of the accreditation requirement.
The Reform Alliance, which is funded by the Walton Family Foundation of Bentonville, was created in 2015 to help support "the whole gamut" of school choice across the state, Clifford said. That includes traditional public schools, charter schools, virtual schools, home schools, magnet schools and private schools.
"We will support each of those very differently depending upon the issue, " Clifford said about helping families to understand the available choices and navigate through the different requirements and deadlines.
The Reform Alliance's status as the intermediary between the Department of Education and private schools circumvents some of the barriers between the agency and the schools.
"Because of what their bylaws say, it is easier for some of them to work through us rather than the Department of Education," Clifford said about the schools.
Clifford is the second director of The Reform Alliance, which is housed in the Arkansas Press Association building on Victory Street, east of the Arkansas Capitol. Clifford, a onetime Texas teacher and former communications director of the Arkansas Public School Resource Center, succeeded Sarah Collins Linam in the job in June.
More information about the Succeed Scholarship Program is available by calling the alliance at (501) 420-4592 or by going to the alliance website: thereformalliance.org.
Detailed information is also available on the Arkansas Department of Education website: arkansased.gov. From the department's home page, the program can be found by clicking on the "S" link under the "Topics A-Z" search system.
A Section on 09/05/2016