Sixty private schools have already applied to participate in Arkansas’ new education voucher program, which is accepting applications until July 31.
Created under the LEARNS Act, a wide-ranging education law, the Educational Freedom Account program will provide up to 90% of the annual per-student public school funding rate for use on allowable education expenses, including private-school tuition.
Lawmakers approved a bill this year that will increase the full rate for the 2023-24 academic year to $7,618 per student.
Christian schools make up the majority of EFA applications submitted to the Arkansas Department of Education in the first week of the application period, June 20-28, according to documents obtained through the Arkansas Freedom of Information Act.
One of those schools is the outdoor-based Joshua Academy, which head of school Kara Witzke said will be Crawford County’s sole private school when it opens this fall. Joshua Academy, which is connected with the nondenominational Jubilee Church, has been in development for over a year and will use a “redemptive education” model, Witzke said.
The goal is to enroll 45 students in kindergarten through 5th grade during its first year, and add grades as the oldest students progress, she said. Around two dozen children have enrolled so far, and they’ll attend one of three two-grade classrooms.
A major barrier to starting a school is obtaining full enrollment to fund it, and the EFA program is “really helping” overcome that, Witzke said.
“We’re a rural county, and private school tuition is something that parents really have not been thinking about or saving for since there were no options,” she said. “It’s a big price tag to educate a child privately.”
Joshua Academy’s tuition is $8,350 per student, but a $400 discount to founding families lowers the cost to $7,950 this fall. Witzke said it’s “a big commitment,” but EFA funding of roughly $6,660 per child would cover 83% of the inaugural year’s tuition, and “that’s huge.”
Average tuition among the 20 schools that included tuition rates in their applications will be about $8,500 per child.
Of the 17 schools that provided tuition information for both the previous and upcoming school years, Arkansas Christian Academy, Cornerstone Christian Academy and Easterseals Academy saw the largest rise in tuition with rate increases ranging from $2,700 to $3,500. Tuition prices at the remaining schools increased by an average of $237.
The EFA program would more than cover the cost of tuition at Shiloh Excel Christian School where tuition tops out at $4,250.
Supported by the Little Rock Shiloh Seventh-Day Adventist Church, Shiloh Excel Christian provides K-8 education using the Adventist Education curriculum embedded in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) processes. Members pay $400 monthly, nonmembers pay $425 monthly, and there are discounts for paying annually, principal and teacher Courtnei Jackson said.
Four students are enrolled in the school, which provides instruction to a maximum of 15 students in a single classroom. Jackson issued a press release the same day the governor signed the LEARNS Act into law declaring her intention to participate in the EFA program.
Having been contacted by several people searching for a different learning environment, Jackson said she wanted to “jump in immediately” because the EFA could provide tuition assistance to those who need it.
Eligibility and access
The EFA program will be phased in over three years. First-year eligible participants include students with disabilities, students experiencing homelessness, foster children, children of active duty military members, students enrolled in an “F”-rated school or a school in need of Level 5 support, and students enrolling in kindergarten for the first time.
Applicants are spread across the state, but there are places with multiple “F”-rated schools where no private schools have yet applied for the EFA program, including Crittenden, Phillips, Lee, Jefferson and Mississippi counties.
The EFA program will absorb the Succeed Scholarship Program, which provided about $7,400 for private school tuition to students with disabilities, as well as students in foster care living in a group home or facility, and students that are children of military members.
Students who participated in the Succeed Scholarship during the 2022-2023 school year will continue to receive the scholarship amount awarded to them. Thirty-nine of the 50 Arkansas schools listed on ADE’s website as Succeed Scholarship participants have applied for the EFA program so far.
Joshua Academy has one teacher with a special education endorsement, but the goal is to hire a special education teacher for the 2024-25 school year “so we can serve a more diverse set of students with special needs,” according to the school’s application.
The majority of Joshua Academy students who’ve applied for the EFA program’s inaugural year qualify as first-time kindergarteners, Witzke said.
Witzke said the application process has had its challenges, but she received confirmation her school was accepted into the program Thursday, about two weeks after she applied.
Under the LEARNS Act, private schools participating in the EFA program must either meet accreditation requirements established by the State Board of Education or the Arkansas Nonpublic School Accrediting Association, or be an associate member of or applied for accreditation by ANSAA or another accrediting association recognized by the state board.
EFA applications are due by the end of the month, but ANSAA applications don’t open until Sept. 1, Witzke said. To meet the requirement, ANSAA set up a pre-application process so they could write a letter stating the school will be good to apply once submissions open, she said.
Another challenge was that student EFA applicants couldn’t select Joshua Academy because it wasn’t listed on the initial application and there wasn’t an “other” option, Witzke said. As a workaround, ADE officials said parents could select a different school for now, but switch to Joshua Academy during the final verification process, she said.
It would have been better to have schools apply first before opening the application to parents, Witzke said.
An ongoing lawsuit against the LEARNS Act that temporarily halted implementation of the law has resulted in a shortened timeline for rolling out the program before the start of the school year in August.
“There’s been a lot of back and forth,” Witzke said. “We’re getting through it, but I also realize that we’re unique because we’re a first-year school, so nobody knew we were even a thing.”
Jackson said she was contacted by one family applying to the EFA program that Shiloh Excel Christian was not listed, so they’re waiting until the school is added to the program. Jackson said she learned about the application process early last week and submitted her forms Thursday.
Despite some hiccups, both women said state officials have been responsive throughout the process, and Witzke said she’s excited to be offering a new education option for families in her community.
“I am so grateful to Sarah Sanders’ vision of improving education in Arkansas,” Witzke said. “47th [in the nation] is definitely not good enough, and if I can be a small part of providing choice for families who desire that, then I’m doing what I was meant to do.”
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