Distance, finances will affect choices as Arkansas Educational Freedom Account rolls out

Nearly half of state’s counties lack private school option, analysis shows

By: - April 26, 2023 6:00 am
Smiling teacher teaches children about the solar system

(Getty Images)

Arkansas’ new Children’s Educational Freedom Account program aims to expand education options for K-12 students, but questions remain about accessibility, especially for families in rural areas. 

A provision of the LEARNS Act, the program will be phased in over three years and allow up to 90% of annual per-student public school funding for permissible education expenses, such as private-school tuition. 

An Arkansas Department of Education spokesperson said the program is on track to begin in the coming school year and a work group that will help develop rules and policies for the initiative should be identified and meeting soon.

Proponents of the Educational Freedom Account program say it will give parents more options to choose whether their children attend public school, private schools or home school.

The Arkansas Advocate found that there is no single clearinghouse for how many private schools exist in Arkansas. Referencing lists from organizations like the Arkansas Department of Education, Arkansas Nonpublic School Accrediting Association and Midsouth Association of Independent Schools, the Advocate independently confirmed the existence of 149 private schools — 119 parochial, 17 independent and 13 Montessori.

Thirty-three of Arkansas’ 75 counties have no private schools. Pulaski County had the most private schools with 35, followed by Benton County with 13 and Washington County with 11.

Illusion of choice

Olivia Gardner, Arkansas Advocates for Children and Families’ education policy director, said “every family doesn’t have access to choice” because many Arkansans live in areas without private schools.

“The idea of school choice in theory is really not made for everyone across the state,” Gardner said. “It really only super applies to families who do have choices.”

Families have a “vastly different experience with the education system” based on where they live, she said, with Arkansans in the more populated northwest and central parts of the state having more access to private schools than those in rural areas.

Olivia Gardner, education policy director, Arkansas Advocates for Children and Families
Olivia Gardner (Courtesy of Arkansas Advocates for Children and Families)

Even if families do live near a private school, Gardner said finances may be a barrier for low-income families if tuition costs more than the funding allotted through the Educational Freedom Account program.

With roughly 91% of Arkansas students enrolled in public schools, Gardner argued the state should be “doubling down” on under-resourced schools and ensuring Arkansas’ public education system “is as strong as it can be rather than trying to open doors to private institutions that just don’t have the same accountability that our public schools are mandated to have.”

“I sympathize with families who want to make the best choice for their student possible. Every parent, that’s what they want for their kid is to send their kid to the best school possible and no one can fault a family for that,” Gardner said. “But I think that as a state, we do have a choice in where we invest our state dollars.”

Supporters argue "school choice" is needed because a “one-size-fits-all” model of education doesn’t work. Gardner agreed that children have different educational needs and pointed to students with disabilities as an example. 

Gardner has worked with disabilities rights advocates and said that for every student helped by a voucher program, there was a student hurt because the services they were told would be available at a private school weren’t, so they ended up back in public school.

“There’s definitely two sides to every coin,” she said.

Predicted participation

Arkansas will become one of 11 states to offer a scholarship program that offers families public education dollars for a variety of expenses, from private school tuition to tutoring.

Arizona became the first state to offer this type of universal program in 2022. Arkansas’ program will reach universal eligibility in the 2025-2026 academic year. 

Patrick Wolf is interim head of the University of Arkansas’ Department of Education Reform where he’s the 21st Century Endowed Chair in School Choice. Having studied programs like these in a variety of states, Wolf said “the sky doesn’t fall” when they’re rolled out. 

Typically there’s not a huge uptake from public school parents because they’re reluctant to change their child’s school unless it’s really necessary, Wolf said. 

“If it’s not clear that an alternative private school’s going to be better for their child than their current public school, then they tend not to make the switch because it’s disruptive and it takes a lot of effort,” he said.

Sarah McKenzie Executive Director, Office for Education Policy
Sarah McKenzie
(Courtesy of the University of Arkansas)

Sarah McKenzie, executive director of the U of A’s Office for Education Policy, echoed those sentiments. Her office administered a survey to 500 parents in late 2021 that found a majority of respondents felt like the state’s schools are good, but the local school their child attends is even better. 

“In most of our communities, the public schools are really the backbone of the community and they have been for a long time, so I just don’t think we’re going to see a widespread take-up of this from traditional public school parents,” McKenzie said. 

When Arkansas’ program has universal eligibility in three years, Wolf said he expects to see a large increase in participation by students already in private schools, mirroring Arizona’s experience. In 2022, the Arizona Department of Education estimated 75% of students enrolled in its Empowerment Scholarship Account program had already been attending private school. 

Nevertheless, Wolf said public school students will opt into Arkansas' program, and to meet the demand expected when it’s fully implemented, there will need to be an increase in supply through new providers or existing private schools creating new schools. In Arizona, he said, that growth has mostly come from private schools already operating in the state.

In Florida, Wolf said, many of the private schools that have popped up in rural counties have mostly been small evangelical Christian schools. Wolf said he would expect the same to occur in Arkansas because those are probably going to be “best aligned with the preferences of families in those rural areas.” 

Arkansas has an estimated 7,000 private-school seats available for growth, Wolf said. These include currently available seats or seats that could easily be added to existing private schools.

The LEARNS Act also removes the limit on the number of charter schools that can operate in the state, so there could be an increase in those as well. Arkansas currently has 22 charter districts that operate 68 schools, according to ADE. Another 18 open-enrollment charter schools could open next year, according to the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette

From a private school’s perspective, Wolf said two major factors discourage participation — requiring open admissions and requiring assessment. In Louisiana, for example, private schools participating in certain "school choice" programs are required to administer the state accountability test even if their curriculum isn’t aligned with state standards. 

“Private schools don’t like that because testing drives curricula, and they want to have the freedom to select and deliver the curriculum that they think is best for their students,” he said. “And so they feel that that’s undue government control of their private school if that’s a requirement.”

If private schools are allowed to have admission standards and choose their assessment test, most will participate, Wolf said. Arkansas’ Educational Freedom Account program allows admission standards and, while assessment is required, private schools may select an approved test. 

Program eligibility and 'F'-ranked schools

In its first year, the Educational Freedom Account program will be open to students with disabilities, students experiencing homelessness, children of active duty military members and foster children, as well as students enrolled in an “F”-rated school or school in need of Level 5–Intensive support.

Five school districts have a Level 5 classification: Earle, Pine Bluff, Lee County, Helena-West Helena and Marvell-Elaine. For the 2021-2022 school year, the most current data available, 95 schools received an “F”-ranking. Three of those did not exist in the 2022-2023 academic year.

Of the 92 “F”-ranked schools currently in operation, nine are charter schools and the remainder are traditional public schools. Eight of the 28 counties with "F"-ranked schools do not have a private school: Ashley, Chicot, Howard, Jefferson, Marion, Monroe, Newton and Scott.

Roughly 7.3% of Arkansas students are enrolled in an “F”-ranked school and would be eligible to participate in the first year of the Educational Freedom Account program. However, initial participation will be capped at 1.5% of the state’s current total public school enrollment (equal to about 7,148 students) and will include those already enrolled in the Succeed Scholarship Program

There are 760 participants currently in the program, according to an ADE spokesperson. That’s an increase from the 493 students who participated in the 2020-2021 school year. According to a June 2022 report to the Legislature, 447 of those students attended private school for the full year. 

The Succeed Scholarship Program, which provides about $7,400 per student for private school tuition for students with disabilities, foster children and military families, will be absorbed into the Educational Freedom Account program. 

Rural concerns

According to the Office of Education Policy’s parental survey, 88% of respondents supported programs that provide resources for “school choice options” such as the Succeed Scholarship Program. Seventy-three percent indicated that they would be likely or very likely to use a scholarship like that to enroll their child in a private school if eligibility restrictions were not a factor.

Parents who said they were not likely to use a scholarship program indicated their top two reasons were that they weren’t interested in sending their child to private school (75%) and that private schools were too far away (51%).

While transportation distance can be a limiting factor for Educational Freedom Account participation, Wolf said it’s not a prohibitive factor. He said high school students may be able to drive themselves instead of relying on a parent to take time off from work to do so. Additionally, some private schools provide transportation through a bus or large van, or arrange carpool co-ops with parents, Wolf said. 

Ozark Catholic Academy in Northwest Arkansas, for example, is using a van and shuttle buses to transport students from Fort Smith, a city with a substantial Catholic population but no Catholic high school, he said.

When transportation isn’t provided by a school, it can be “a huge barrier for families,” AACF's Gardner said. “It’s not just the cost of transportation and having reliable transportation, it’s also the cost associated with maintaining a vehicle that’s driving extra miles and all those things that go into that.”

In addition to being able to afford gas and car maintenance, Gardner said having to drive long distances can be prohibitive to participating in extracurricular activities because of how early students would have to leave home or how late they would return.

In addition to accessibility, rural Arkansas school administrators have voiced concerns about losing students to the Educational Freedom Account program and being forced to close under the nearly 20-year-old Public Education Reorganization Act

That law requires the consolidation of districts whose daily average membership falls below 350 for two consecutive years. The bill was signed into law in 2004 by former Gov. Mike Huckabee, the father of Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders.

Act 461 of 2023 addresses that concern by removing mandatory consolidation of school districts with low enrollment. The law does preserve the right for districts to consolidate if they so choose. 

Patrick Wolf, interim head of the University of Arkansas’s Department of Education Reform
Patrick Wolf
(Courtesy of the University of Arkansas)

Wolf said he was glad to see the consolidation law amended because he “felt that was a bad law all along.”

“I’ve long advocated for its removal because bigger doesn’t necessarily mean better and smaller doesn’t necessarily mean worse,” he said. “I think there are many small public schools in rural parts of our state that are perfectly good schools, and it seems ridiculous to have a single metric, number of students enrolled, that decides if a school continues or doesn’t continue.”

Rural schools could still lose students to private schools through the Educational Freedom Account program, but Wolf said it’s possible to see increased enrollment like they have in rural Florida counties. 

According to a 2022 report from Step Up For Students, a nonprofit that administers four education choice programs in Florida, total enrollment in rural school districts grew by 3.3 percent over the last decade. 

Wolf said this is because more families with school-aged children will move to rural areas that aren’t “so scary anymore” because there’s “an exit option” if the local education system doesn’t serve their needs.

“Most of them are attracted to the district-run public school, but they just want to know that they will have viable options in case that doesn’t work out,” he said. “Many public schools in rural areas advertise themselves as community centers and the centers of everything. Well that’s great. Then they have nothing to worry about.”

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Antoinette Grajeda
Antoinette Grajeda

Antoinette Grajeda is a multimedia journalist who has reported since 2007 on a wide range of topics, including politics, health, education, immigration and the arts for NPR affiliates, print publications and digital platforms. A University of Arkansas alumna, she earned a bachelor’s degree in print journalism and a master’s degree in documentary film.