University of Arkansas Office for Education Policy

Posts Tagged ‘School Vouchers’

HB1208 and HB1222: More channels for Arkansas students

In AR Legislature, The View from the OEP on January 25, 2017 at 11:52 am


Two bills introduced in the Arkansas state legislature have gotten us thinking about TV, cable, and Netflix.

The first bill, (HB1208), would allow districts to adopt a policy allowing private school or homeschool students to enroll in academic courses at a the public school, and provides funding to the district for each student that does so.

The second bill, The Arkansas Parental Empowerment for Education Choice Act of 2017 (HB1222), would create Education Savings Accounts that parents could use to support non-public schooling options such a private school tuition or curriculum materials for homeschoolers. 

More details about the bills are provided below, but essentially, one bill provides support for public schools that offer part-time academic enrollment to students who are not currently attending public school, and the other provides financial support parents that want a non-public option. The bills move our students closer to learning what they need, when they need, where they need.

And that’s why we were thinking about TV….

When we were growing up there were a few channels on the TV and they were the same for everyone.  Along came the VHS (and the doomed Betamax) and you could rent movies to watch at home and even set up your VCR to record something off of the TV. Then came cable, and (for a price) you could get cool shows on Showtime and HBO.  Soon you could record your shows on devices like TiVo, and pause and fast forward through commercials (which we LOVE)!  Some people got frustrated with the ‘cable packages’ (where you have to pay for lots of channels you will never watch in order to get the one or two you want) and have left cable for on-demand streaming services such as Netflix or Hulu.  The students in our classrooms now likely ONLY stream their content.  These services allow subscribers to watch what they want, when they want, where they want.

There are parallels to learning: In the past there were mainly public schools and private schools.  Additional options have increased in Arkansas and across the country- including virtual, charter, and homeschool options. Now we are getting options to mix and match- public schools are getting the opportunity to allow these students to enroll for a specific class or two and parents who are choosing the non-public options are getting an opportunity to get some financial support for their student’s education.

We look forward to seeing how these bills progress through the session.  We think students benefit from both these bills and don’t see a significant downside.  Famillies and students expect to be able to make choices that best match thier needs. Educational options should provide students opportunities to do the same.

HB1208 would allow districts to adopt a policy allowing private school or homeschool students to enroll in academic courses at a the public school, and provides funding to the district for each student that does so.

What it is: Students who are not attending public school may, if the local public school district agrees, enroll in an academic class at the local public school. Homeschool students are already allowed to participate in interscholastic activities such as sports, fine arts, or clubs.

Districts are not required to allow homeschool or private school students to enroll.  If the district did allow enrollment, the state would pay the district an amount equal to 1/6th of foundation funding for each course in which a homeschool or private school student enrolls. Given that foundation funding for 2016-17 is $6,646, that works out to about $1,100 per class/student annually. Districts can limit the enrollment to certain grade levels or courses, to a certain number of students, and/or set specific admissions criteria.  We like the idea of homeschool students having access to Project Lead the Way courses, AP classes, or any class taught by an outstanding public school teacher.

Who is eligible:   Any district may choose to adopt such policies and any homeschool or private school student may enroll if the local district allows.  There is no enrollment cap included in the legisaltion. In 2015-16, 19,229 students were homeschooled, a population equivalent to about 4% of the public school population.  Homeschool rates (as a percentage of the public school population) ranges from 0% to over 15%.

The Arkansas Parental Empowerment for Education Choice Act of 2017 (HB1222)

What it is: In lieu of attending a public school, Education Savings Accounts (ESAs) allow families to allocate funding to non-public schooling options of their choice. The amount equivalent to the foundation funding amount ($6,646 for 2016-17) will be placed in an ESA and the funds can be used to:

  • pay tuition at a private school,
  • purchase curriculum or instructional materials for homeschool studies, 
  • purchase tutoring services, 
  • pay fees for AP examinations, college placement examinations, Industry certification examinations,  
  • pay tuition for after-school or summer programs focused on academic instruction,
  • make contributions to a college savings account,
  • pay tuition or fees at an institution of higher education,
  • pay for specialized services for eligible students (such as occupational therapy, physical therapy, speech-language pathology, audiology), and/ or
  • pay transportation costs for travel to educational services.

Who is eligible:  The proposed program would allow any child eligible to enroll in a K-12 public school in the state to qualify for the ESA.   Five states that currently have ESA programs:  Arizona, Florida, Mississippi, Nevada, and Tennessee, have limitations about the types of students who are eligible. Students must be identified with special needs to be eligible in Florida, Mississippi, and Tennessee.  Students in Arizona and Nevada must have previously attended a public school to be eligible.  Arkansas is the first state to propose a fully-universal ESA.

Given maximum funding, approximately 2,000 students could receive an ESA for the 2017-18 school year. This is 0.4% of current public school enrollment.  In the first year, if the number of students applying for an ESA exceeds the funding available, accounts will be offered through a weighted lottery that ensures students receiving Free/Reduced Lunch (FRL) are proportionally represented. Statewide, 61% of public school students currently receive FRL so the lottery would be weighted to ensure that 61% of the accounts were allocated to FRL students. If fewer than 61% of applications are from FRL-eligible students, 100% of the FRL students will be selected for an account.

In subsequent years, if the number of students applying for an ESA exceeds the funding available, current users and their siblings are prioritized for ESAs.

Initial analysis of fiscal impacts of the bill indicate it will likely be cost neutral for the state.

Vouchers in Arkansas: Examining the Succeed Scholarship Program

In AR Legislature, 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.