Rural districts concerned about voucher program accountability, school closures
Bryan Pruitt knows well how being in the right school can spark a love of learning. Nothing generated his interest as a middle school student in Ozark, so he transferred to nearby County Line High School where an agriculture program changed his life.
“When I was at County Line, I could not get enough of school,” he said. “I loved every minute of it.”
Pruitt was inspired by the agri teacher, his favorite, and has worked as an educator and administrator for 36 years. As the current superintendent of the Eureka Springs School District, he’s keenly aware of the discussions around expanding school vouchers in Arkansas and the impact that could have on rural districts like his.
Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders on Wednesday unveiled components of her education plan, which would include state funding for parents to enroll their children in public, private and parochial schools or homeschool through a proposed Education Freedom Account.
While he’s not necessarily against a voucher program like this, Pruitt said he’s absolutely for accountability.
“If we’re using taxpayers’ money, then accountability needs to be there because we don’t want to be wasteful of taxpayers’ dollar,” he said.
Unlike state-funded public schools, private schools are not required to meet certain standards, such as administering assessment tests or providing transportation.
Bismarck School District Superintendent Susan Kissire said she’s not “threatened by the whole concept of school choice” because she thinks her district could benefit as “one of the highest-achieving school districts in the state.”
But Kissire said there needs to be “a level playing field.” While private schools can choose to kick out a student not meeting their standards or decide not to take on the costs associated with educating a special needs student, Kissire said public schools are required to educate everyone.
“We provide an education to every student that comes to us,” she said. “Regardless of what needs that they may have, we’re going to provide an education to that student.”
Kissire is also concerned about the potential for segregation and said she doesn’t want a return to the apartheid of the past.
“It’s wonderful to have all of our students together learning from each other, learning from their cultures, having those experiences,” she said. “That’s one concern is that with this [in] some areas parents might try to go into different areas, and that might cause some segregation concerns in some different school districts, and I would just really hate to see that happen.”
The Arkansas Rural Ed Association advocates on behalf of its more than 200 members to public officials and legislative bodies, and executive director Dennis Copeland said accountability is “the number one issue” for rural schools when it comes to expanding voucher programs.
Poverty is another issue because vouchers don’t always cover the entire cost of private school tuition, Copeland said. Additionally, private schools are often located in more urban areas and low-income rural families may not have the means to transport their children to and from a private school, he said.
Rural counties in Arkansas have a 20% poverty rate, which is higher than the 16% poverty rate in urban counties, according to the 2021 Rural Profile of Arkansas. Within rural regions, the Delta has the highest rate of total poverty at 23%.
“It’s almost a backward way of segregation is kind of what it’s doing because those people that are in poverty cannot afford to do that,” he said.
Rep. Jim Wooten (R-Beebe) has filed two bills to address these issues. HB 1204 would require private schools to administer an annual statewide assessment, while HB 1205 would require schools that accept state funding to provide transportation to certain students.
Neither bill has been presented in committee yet.
During her education plan press conference on Wednesday, Sanders said there are some accountability measures schools will need to adhere to but did not elaborate on what those will be.
“We think that’s incredibly important if we’re investing state dollars,” she said. “We want to make sure we have that accountability mechanism in place.”
Public schools receive state funding on a per-student basis, so a public school would lose funds if students transfer to a private school. The funding loss disproportionately affects smaller schools, Copeland said.
“Ten students to a small school is huge. Compared to a big school, it wouldn’t faze them at all,” he said. “But in a smaller school that’s got 350 students and you lose 10, that’s $75,000 from your budget right there. Then you have to start making cuts … laying off teachers and staff and all those kind of things, which is something that you don’t want to ever have to do.”
The state uses a specific formula called the matrix to determine the per-student funding amount, which is $7,349 per student for the 2022–2023 school year. Arkansas spends about 41% of its general revenue budget on K-12 public education.
“If I was a smaller school than what we were, I’d be shaking in the boots right now, especially if I had a school that had an F,” Pruitt said.
The Arkansas Department of Education produces an annual School Report Card, which assigns a ranking from A to F based on multiple indicators of student achievement and school quality. Ninety-five schools currently are graded F.
If approved, the proposed Education Freedom Account would be offered to the state’s most “at-risk” students in the first year before expanding to all families within three years, Sanders said.
“Looking at it, I’m thinking, Okay, this is a way that they’re going to close some schools,” Pruitt said.
The Public Education Reorganization Act, approved in 2004, requires the Department of Education to publish a consolidation list of all districts with fewer than 350 students. Districts on the list “may voluntarily agree to administratively consolidate with or be annexed to another district or districts.”
In 2015, then-Gov. Asa Hutchinson signed into law Act 377, which allowed schools on the consolidation list to submit a petition for a waiver.
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The loss of a school district can be devastating for a community, Copeland said.
“Those communities that their school district was their prime employer, was their prime pride … when that school district was consolidated, that town and that community kind of dried up as far as what the end result was,” he said. “That’s very unfortunate, and we don’t want that to happen anymore,” Copeland said.
The flip side of voucher transfers occurs when districts receive new students and have to accommodate enrollment growth.
Eureka Springs is one of a handful of districts that doesn’t receive per-student funding from the state because, as a tourist destination, the city generates a little more revenue through taxes than the matrix’s estimated per-student cost, Pruitt said.
However, if the district receives more students, it will have to cover those costs with the same amount of tax revenue until it reaches a threshold where the state will have to start providing funding because it cannot meet the per-student cost on its own.
That funding gap is a concern for Pruitt, who said they’ll “have to tighten our belt” to prepare for that and a potential increase of the state’s minimum teacher salary to $50,000, as proposed by the governor.
“There’ll be a point where we get caught, and when it does, then we have to really watch our P’s and Q’s,” he said.
Public schools are responsible for students’ assessment test scores, even if they previously attended a private school or were homeschooled, which is another reason administrators said there needs to be more accountability.
Eureka Springs High School often receives students from a local parochial school that only goes up to the 8th grade, so the schools work together to ensure teens are prepared for the transition, Pruitt said.
“We want those kids educated and prepared because we don’t want to go back and backtrack when we get them in the eighth or ninth grade,” he said.
While some are well-prepared, others need help catching up, but assisting them is just part of the job, Pruitt said.
As a former superintendent, Copeland said many of the students who were homeschooled ended up there because “their parents got upset with the school for disciplinary reasons.” To avoid dealing with the consequences of issues like truancy, parents opted to homeschool their children instead.
While many homeschooled students receive a quality education, there’s no accountability measure in place, so it’s not unusual for them to return to public school in a few years and be “way behind,” Copeland said. Then when they’re tested, their low scores negatively affect the school district, he said.
“That’s where I think the biggest rub is with the superintendents and the different school districts is who is going to be held accountable for that student’s education if they’re not really receiving one,” Copeland said.
Education is always evolving, and you have to play with the cards you’re dealt, Pruitt said. In the end, the main goal is to make sure students are educated, prepared and confident they’ll be successful after graduation, he said.
“If you have a problem with change, then you’re in the wrong business when it comes to education,” Pruitt said.
The veteran educator and administrator is open to discussions about changing education in Arkansas, but said he’s bothered by legislators “bashing us” for the state’s low education rankings.
“That’s not the whole state. That’s my reply: It’s not all of us,” Pruitt said. “There’s a lot of us that are working hard and we have great kids, great parents, great teachers and resources, and we’re getting it done.”
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