President-elect Donald Trump, an open supporter of school choice, has nominated Betsy Devos for Secretary of Education. Devos was most recently the Chairwoman of the board of directors for the American Federation for Children, a lobbying, political action committee (PAC), and non-profit organization that promotes school choice across the country. This political atmosphere requires that we think critically about how school choice policies apply to the state of Arkansas.
School Choice in Arkansas
Arkansas already provides for several types of school choice. The most well-known is charter schools, which are public schools that are independently operated but receive federal and state funding and held to all accountability requirements. Currently, Arkansas has 24 open-enrollment charter schools operating 43 campuses. Another type of school choice that may be less familiar is vouchers. Arkansas has a new program allowing such vouchers for students with disabilities, and today’s policy brief examines the program and what it might mean for Arkansas.
The Succeed Scholarship
The 2016-17 school year is the first year that Arkansas’ students with disabilities could use state education dollars as tuition at authorized private schools. The Succeed Scholarship Program, passed by House Bill 1552, permits public school students with disabilities to transfer to an approved private school of their parent’s choosing with the support of the student’s full foundation funding to cover school tuition and fees. Students with an Individualized Education Plan (IEP) can apply to participating private schools, and, if accepted, receive a voucher worth the state’s foundation funding amount (currently $6,646) or school tuition, whichever is less. Approved private schools are held to academic, fiscal, non-discrimination, and safety standards.
The underlying belief behind private school choice is that parents have their own goals for the education of their students and also have a better understanding of what their student needs than do school officials. In the case of special education students, this is critical because traditional public schools offer similar special education services, and parents may not feel that these services will meet the needs of their student. Moreover, students who are geographically tied to attend a poor performing traditional school should be provided the means to obtain a high quality education regardless of their family wealth. These types of choices have always been afforded to wealthy Americans, and private school choice programs afford all parents the same options.
Private school choice programs (i.e. vouchers, tax-credit scholarships, education savings accounts, etc.) for students with disabilities are becoming increasingly popular, particularly in the southern United States. While most other private school choice programs target students from low-income households, programs like the Succeed Scholarship offer a private school voucher to students based on enrollment in special education. Special education has had a long history of utilizing private schools to provide appropriate services for students with disabilities. Through the IEP process, districts can place students in private schools if they are unable to properly support their academic progress. A voucher, however, takes the district decision-making out of the equation, and it allows parents to place their students in private schools on their own.
Impacts for Arkansas
There are potential cost savings from the Succeed Scholarship Program for the state and district. Students with disabilities receive funding from state, local and federal sources, but the program only allots state foundation funding for the voucher, leaving more federal and local funding available to all other students who remain in the public school system. Additionally, the current bill funds the Succeed Scholarship outside of the Public School Fund, leaving all state funding that would have gone to these students available.
To some extent, we may see all of these areas as clear reasons why a program like the Succeed Scholarship should exist. An important concern, however, is that families must relinquish their rights under the Individuals with Disabilities in Education Act (IDEA) and their Individualized Education Plan (IEP) while enrolled in the Succeed Scholarship program. While parents can return at any time to the public schools or even transfer to another private school participating in the program, potential negative effects exist from a school that neglecting the special needs of a student with a disability. Another concern is that the voucher amount may not cover the entire cost of tuition at a school that will meet the student’s needs, and poor families would not be able to supplement (“top up”) the voucher. This is particularly true for students with the most severe disabilities, who cost substantially more to educate. Private schools that participate cannot discriminate in their admissions process, but they can use their normal entrance requirements, including testing, interviews, and review of records. Students with academic, social/emotional, and behavioral disabilities, may be at a real disadvantage and be de facto discriminated against, limiting their true school choices.
Special education private school choice programs are often seen as a “foot in the door” for school choice laws. Once some success has been shown to the public, more laws can be passed to expand these programs. The political climate is ripe for such potential expansion, whether these programs are targeted to students from low-income households or available to all students. Eyes are on the current legislative session to see if the issue of private school choice arises once again in Arkansas. It is essential that citizens and legislators alike consider the potential costs and benefits, not just for students today but for generations to come.