LITTLE ROCK, Ark. – As a part of the state’s new education reform law, known as Arkansas LEARNS, eligible students can receive state funds as vouchers called an Education Freedom Account to attend specific private schools.
The concept has been debated since before the bill was even introduced this session and continues to get some pushback now after the first report was released showing the data so far.
The annual Education Freedom Account report is based on the 2023-2024 school year, though the EFAs did not officially begin until June.
It shows more than 4,795 students are participating in the program, which offers $6,672 for a student’s account. The study shows 94 private schools in the state are participating.
“This program was passed and sold to the public, and sold to legislators, as a way to help poor students trapped in failing public schools, but in fact, that’s not at all what happened,” Attorney Ali Noland said.
Noland filed the lawsuit against the Department of Education earlier this year regarding the bill’s emergency clause, though she said this report validates some of her other concerns, specifically the Education Freedom Accounts.
Of the nearly 4,800 students participating, the report shows just 55 come from F-rated or Level 5 schools. Those schools are graded based on student performance each year.
The report shows that the majority of students enrolled at a private school through EFAs this year were already in private schools before applying.
Most participating students, 95%, reported being first-time kindergarteners or enrolling in a private school upon submitting their application for Education Freedom Accounts.
Specifically, 31% of recipients entered as new kindergarten students, meaning the rest had been enrolled in a private school already.
“These voucher programs ultimately benefit families that were already private school families and that frankly could already afford to send their children to private schools,” Noland said. “Now, they’re getting a taxpayer-funded discount.”
Senate President Pro Tempore Bart Hester (R-Cave Springs) said the EFAs benefit not just the families of students in public schools who cannot afford private schools, but also the families who have been making significant sacrifices to afford their kid’s tuition based on their needs.
“Yes, some of these people were paying for private school already, but it was an extreme sacrifice,” Hester said.
Noland also pointed out that the amount of money students can receive through EFAs does not cover the full tuition for several of the top schools participating, like Episcopal Collegiate, Pulaski Academy, and Little Rock Christian Academy. She said this hurts students with real financial needs.
Hester said it will take time to determine their financial plans for the next three years as the law continues being implemented, but at some point, it could become 100%.
In the report, the ADE also said that in next year’s report it will show test numbers for the participating students over the last year, retention rates for the private schools and parent satisfaction with the program.