Updated: Nov 6
In January, Arkansas Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders issued the omnibus LEARNS Bill, introducing major education legislation. The bill was passed and made into law in March of this year. Included in the LEARNS Act was the Education Freedom Act voucher program, in which parents can now take state money with their kids if they want to change to a private school. This has hurt public schools and has had a negative impact on Arkansas education. It should have never been implemented.
Cynthia Howell from the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette recently reported data that shows that 4,795 students in Arkansas are participating in the Education Freedom Act program this school year. However, the numbers show that 95% of the students enrolled in the program are just starting kindergarten or are already enrolled in private schools. A large number of the rising kindergartens were already in the process of enrolling in private schools. This is concerning, because it shows that the state funding for the program is not actually going to families that cannot pay the private school tuition. As of September, $7 million has been spent on the EFA program. It is expected that at the end of the school year, the program will spend $32.5 million. If people are arguing that the program is needed because public schools are “declining”, then why are we not investing more money in our public schools? The Act is encouraging students to transfer to private schools. Instead, why don’t we use our taxpayer dollars on schools subject to state government regulation? Hypothetically, if every private school kid was eligible for the program, the Arkansas government would have to spend a large amount of money funding it- an amount that the state might not even be able to afford. This should be concerning to all taxpayers.
If students are enrolling in private schools with state funding, then private schools should have to abide by ADE regulations. Most of the private schools are Christian-oriented, so there becomes a gray area of the separation of church and state. If taxpayers do not support religious schools, then they shouldn’t have to pay for kids to attend them. The private schools should have to do standardized testing that the public schools complete and abide by the same rules. The new program is almost completely funding some tuition at private schools. For example, Howell reports that “100% of the 36 students at Friendship Lab for Dyslexia at Maumelle and 97% of the 73 at Easter Seals Arkansas- The Academy at Riverdale in Little Rock”, are participating in the program. It is not sustainable for this program to completely fund schools. And since that seems to be the case in some places, those schools need to follow state education guidelines. That is only fair to Arkansans.
Now that the program is in place, the state is providing funding for all public schools, in addition to vouchers to cover private school tuition. This is going to cause major issues with the state budget later on. Cuts are going to have to come from other places to sustain such a large program. Included in the LEARNS Act, the voucher program is another part of legislation that wasn’t debated and adjusted enough in the state legislature. The speed of the Act caused many pieces of the legislation to get pushed through more easily. While Governor Sanders was surrounded by kids at the signing of the bill, it can be reasonably assumed that those kids were all attendees of Little Rock private schools. While Governor Sanders may claim the program is benefitting schools, the students and faculty actually attending and working at Arkansas public schools are not feeling positive effects. The Education Freedom Act might look nice on paper, but it was a mistake and passed much too quickly.
Anna Claire Carter, Jonesboro,12th, @annaclairecarter
Howell, Cynthia . “Report: 4,795 in State Using School Vouchers.” Arkansas Online, 7 Oct. 2023, www.nwaonline.com/news/2023/oct/07/report-4795-in-state-using-school-vouchers/#:~:text=In%20all%2C%20as%20of%