University of Arkansas Office for Education Policy

Vouchers in Arkansas: Examining the Succeed Scholarship Program

In The View from the OEP on January 11, 2017 at 1:34 pm


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.

Stop Scapegoating: Educating kids should be the focus

In The View from the OEP on January 4, 2017 at 12:35 pm

In case you missed it- we wanted to share our Op-Ed from the paper this weekend about charter school enrollment in Little Rock.


img_3836The approved expansion of two Little Rock-area charter schools led many to express fears that charter schools skim off the easiest-to-educate students and leave “those other kids” for traditional schools. Specifically, concerns were raised that charters would decrease the white population of Little Rock School District and increase the district’s percentage of poor students.

We at the Office for Education Policy also care about the interactions between public charter schools and traditional public schools and decided to investigate what the data had to say about these questions. We examined student-level enrollment and academic data from the 2008-09 to 2014-15 school years. We tracked annual student moves to understand who leaves the Little Rock district for charters and how those moves impact racial and socioeconomic integration.

We found that students who left the district for charters were typical, both demographically and academically, and their exits increased racial and socioeconomic integration in the district.

As a reminder, charter schools are public schools. Like traditional public schools, there is no cost for students to attend. Unlike traditional public schools, to which students are assigned based on their address, open-enrollment charters are open to any student. Charters are authorized to serve a specific number of students, so students must apply for a seat. If more students want to attend than there are seats, students are selected through a random lottery. Students who are not selected can remain on a wait list. Charter schools cannot select or reject student applications based on demographic or academic characteristics. Charters must administer all state exams and abide by identical accountability requirements.

About 15 percent of students (excluding graduates) leave the Little Rock School District each year for some other schooling option. We were surprised to find that nearly half of these students (7 percent) leave the Arkansas public school system entirely–they move out of state, drop out, or select private or home school settings. Some (6 percent) move to other public school districts; half move nearby to the North Little Rock or Pulaski County districts, and half move to other public schools in the state. Perhaps surprisingly, given all of the attention given to charter transfers, only 2 percent (fewer than one of every seven who leave) of students transfer from the Little Rock district to charter schools each year!

What do we know about these students?

First, the 2 percent of students who transferred into area charters were representative of the district student population as a whole. Students who moved to charters were 64 percent black and 19 percent white, compared to the district population of 67 percent black and 20 percent white. Socioeconomically, 61 percent of students who moved to charters were eligible for free/reduced lunch, while 69 percent of district students participated. Students who left for area charters were not more likely to be white or economically advantaged than the overall district population.

Students who left for area charters performed similarly on state assessments as students who remained. In four of the six years examined, there were no statistically significant differences in scores between students who left for charters and those who remained in the district. However, students who left for charters were average performers in their school in all years examined. This finding refutes the argument that charters poach the best students.

Further, we found that when students exited the district for charters, the schools they left behind became less racially and/or socioeconomically segregated.

Our findings contradict critics’ concern that charters increase racial and socioeconomic segregation. One fact we must acknowledge is that Little Rock district schools are already racially and socioeconomically segregated. Thus, when students exit, they are most often leaving segregated settings. We found that black students who leave tend to exit schools with an above-average percentage of black students, and white students leave schools with an above-average percentage of white students.

Residential segregation in Little Rock, as in many other cities throughout the U.S., results in racial and socioeconomic segregation of residentially assigned public schools. Charter schools allow for students to enroll regardless of ZIP code. Little Rock families who choose to sever the link between where they live and the school that their children attend are countering the racial and socioeconomic segregation of traditional public schools.

Those who are passionate about equity should stop demonizing charters and chasing the false argument that charters cause segregation; instead, we should focus our collective energy on providing an affirming and effective learning environments for all Little Rock public school students–regardless of sector.

A wise school leader once said that “the students don’t care whether the sign outside the school says ‘Charter’ or not.” They simply need effective teachers who care about them and prepare them for the future.

Sarah C. McKenzie is the executive director of the Office for Education Policy at the University of Arkansas. Elise Swanson is a research assistant at the Office for Education Policy and a distinguished doctoral fellow in the Department of Education Reform at the University of Arkansas.

Editorial on 12/31/2016


Quality Counts 2017

In The View from the OEP on January 4, 2017 at 12:34 pm


Today Education Week released their annual Quality Counts report, which grades each state on their education performance.  This year Arkansas received an overall grade of C- and is ranked 43rd overall.  While receiving a C- is not new (Arkansas has received a C- for the last two years) our national ranking has slipped from 36th in 2015, to 41st in 2016, to the current 43rd.  As we have discussed in previous blog posts there are several issues with the grading system, and Arkansas’ scores have remained essentially stagnant.  We will dig into the report, but want to emphasize that we should not let this grade distract us from the work going on in the state.

This year’s report includes summative grades and rankings for states on education indicators as well as a special focus on transition to ESSA.

What is Being Graded?

A state’s overall grade is the average of its scores on three separate indicators: Chance-for-Success, K-12 Achievement and School Finance.  The format was updated in 2015 in an attempt to focus on “outcomes rather than on policy and processes.” Although the report can be useful there are several issues with the grading system; previous blog posts have discussed the flawed nature of the grading system.

Below are the most recent three years of  Arkansas grades in each of the categories considered for 2017.  The full report highlighting Arkansas student achievement can be accessed here.

Quality Counts Categories AR Grade 2015 AR Grade 2016 AR Grade 2017
Chance for Success C- C-  C-
School Finance C C-  C-
K-12 Achievement D+ D  D*

* Note: K-12 Achievement values are unchanged from the 2016 Quality Counts report

We will dig into the report, but want to emphasize that we should not be too distracted by this grade, which reflects

The High and the Low:

Each of the three areas are an average of many other scores, so here at OEP we wanted to bring out the high (ranked in top 15 states) and low (ranked in bottom 15 states) areas for each category.

Chance for Success: According to EdWeek, “The Chance-for-Success framework allows states to identify strong and weak links in their residents’ educational life course―their typical trajectory from childhood through adulthood.”

  • High scores:  Arkansas ranks 9th nationally in steady adult employment- the percent of adults in labor force working full-time and year round. We rank 15th in the percentage of students attending preschool!
  • Low scores: Arkansas ranked 49th in annual income and in percent of adults with a two- or four-year degree- only 30.3% of Arkansas adults have a postsecondary degree. We also ranked low in other indicators: family income, parental education, parental employment, elementary reading, middle school math, and postsecondary enrollment.

School Finance: Examining school finance can provide insight into how well a state is supporting public education. This measure is one of the most problematic in our opinion, as Arkansas supports education well in our view.

  • High scores: Spending on education Arkansas ranked 11th nationally in the percent of taxable resources spent on education even higher than Massachusetts!
  • Low scores: Arkansas provides near the national average in per pupil spending when adjusted for variations in regional costs.  Because Arkansas’ funding is so equitable across the state, only 14.7% of students are in districts where the expenditures are above the national average.  Although we received low scores for this measure, here at the OEP we think the equity is a good thing!

K-12 Achievement:  The K-12 Achievement Index is unchanged from the 2016 report because it uses data from the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) which is only administered every other year.  The Index examines 18 distinct state achievement measures related to reading and math performance, high school graduation rates, and the results of Advanced Placement exams.

  • High scores:  Arkansas ranked high in both 8th grade math gains and closing of the 4th grade reading achievement gap
  • Low scores: Arkansas ranked low compared to other states in math and reading achievement (2015 NAEP: 4th and 8th grade)

The strong scores summarized above reflect Arkansas’s commitment to education and that students are making gains.  The low scores reflect the many challenges that Arkansas students face: poverty, low parental and adult educational attainment, and, unfortunately, low achievement (especially in math). Although a D in student achievement is not what we would like to see, it is important to remember that these scores are old- from the 2015 NAEP administration and Arkansas’ students are making gains.

So what can we do?

This is EdWeek’s measure of educational quality, but here at OEP we don’t think it accurately captures all the strengths and areas for improvement.  ESSA is allowing states to develop measures of student achievement that are MEANINGFUL TO THEM.  Arkansas continues to gather input from stakeholders about what student success looks like for our state.  We recommend that you make your voice heard!

We believe that if policymakers and education leaders can focus on meaningful data, like student achievement AND growth, equity and efficiency in the face of disadvantage, and post-secondary transitions, students in Arkansas can continue to improve and reach greater levels of educational and lifelong success.