Stacy Smith, deputy commissioner for DESE, back to camera at podium, outlines the details of a transformation contract between the Marvell-Elaine School District and the Friendship Education Foundation during a special state board of education meeting on May 5, 2023. (John Sykes/Arkansas Advocate)
The Arkansas State Board of Education approved emergency rules governing a new school voucher program during its monthly meeting Thursday.
The emergency rules for the Educational Freedom Account program will go into effect Aug. 1 and sunset in 120 days, pending approval by the Arkansas Legislative Council next week.
The emergency rules will be replaced by permanent rules, which the board also approved to release for public comment. The Arkansas Department of Education will use the feedback to recommend any proposed changes that will be brought back to the board.
Created under the LEARNS Act, the Educational Freedom Account program provides up to 90% of the annual per-student public funding rate for use on allowable education expenses, including private-school tuition. EFA funding for the 2023-2024 school year will be about $6,660 per child, according to ADE.
The proposed emergency rules mirror the language of the LEARNS Act, which includes details about eligibility requirements, ADE’s new chief general counsel Andrés Rhodes said. For example, the law dictates that the program will be phased in over three years with varying eligibility criteria each year.
For the 2023-2024 school year, participation will be limited to 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.
First-year participation is also open to Succeed Scholarship recipients. That program, which is being absorbed into the new EFA program, 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 who are children of military members.
The emergency rules also establish a process through which an applicant may appeal the Office of School Choice’s determination that a student or school is not eligible for the EFA program. Participants can also appeal determinations that EFA funds have been misspent and the suspension or termination of a participating school or service provider from the program.
ADE began accepting EFA program applications on June 20. Sixty private schools applied during the first week of the application period, according to documents obtained through the Arkansas Freedom of Information Act.
Nearly 3,300 students have applied for the EFA program and about 1,900 have been approved, Rhodes said. The application deadline is Aug. 1. Parents can continue to apply after that date, but participation will be contingent on whether funds are still available, he said.
Inaugural year participation will be capped at 1.5% of the state’s current public school enrollment, or roughly 7,148 students. Officials estimate the program could cost about $46 million the first year, Rhodes said.
Implementation of the EFA program has been delayed due to a lawsuit challenging the effective date of the LEARNS Act. A Pulaski County circuit judge last month invalidated the law’s emergency clause, which would have allowed it to go into effect immediately instead of 91 days after the end of the legislative session.
Arkansas Attorney General Tim Griffin on Wednesday filed a motion to expedite his appeal of the ruling. Barring the Arkansas Supreme Court reversing the decision, the LEARNS Act will not go into effect until Aug. 1.
ADE officials said the emergency rules will ensure procedures are in place when the law takes effect, and public notice will be given when the public comment period opens.
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