Arkansas Department of Education officials Courtney Salas-Ford and Andrés Rhodes answer questions from members of the Joint Education Committee on July 17, 2023 at the state Capitol. (Screenshot from livestream)
The Legislature’s Joint Education Committee on Monday recommended approval of proposed emergency rules that will govern the state’s new school voucher program. The recommendation will next be considered by the Arkansas Legislative Council’s executive subcommittee Thursday.
Created under the LEARNS Act, the Educational Freedom Account program provides up to 90% of the annual per-student 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.
The Arkansas State Board of Education approved the proposed emergency rules for the EFA program last week. Pending legislative approval, the temporary rules will be in place when the LEARNS Act and the EFA program go into effect Aug. 1.
During Monday’s meeting, Arkansas Department of Education officials answered questions for about an hour from lawmakers, including Sen. Linda Chesterfield, D-Little Rock, who was concerned about licensure regulations.
Under the proposed rules, a private school participating in the program must employ teachers who have “at least baccalaureate degrees or have equivalent documented experience,” as determined by ADE. Chesterfield questioned the impact of not requiring an educator to have a college degree.
“Is this why Johnny can’t read because we’re putting folks in there that don’t even have a bachelor’s degree?” Chesterfield asked.
Chief of Staff Courtney Salas-Ford said “that’s an entirely different conversation,” but ADE is providing private schools the same options afforded to public schools for times when they cannot find someone to fill positions.
“So if they feel that they can best meet their students’ needs with a teacher who does not have a bachelor’s degree, and parents know of that and they are still choosing to admit their child into that private school, then we wanted to afford them that same flexibility,” she said.
Arkansas has different licensure pathways, and public schools may apply for an exception from the state law requiring a licensed educator “if it imposes an undue hardship” for a school to fill the position with a licensed individual in a timely manner, according to ADE.
For example, school districts can obtain teacher licensure waivers through Act 1240 of 2015, which allows them to petition the State Board of Education for the same waivers granted to open-enrollment charter schools if any students residing in the district attend a charter school.
According to a report issued in March by the University of Arkansas Office for Education Policy, 836 teachers were hired using Act 1240 waivers in 69 districts during the 2021-22 school year. This represents about a quarter of the state’s districts and 2% of the nearly 40,000 teachers employed that year.
Chesterfield, a former teacher, acknowledged the proposed emergency rules are temporary, but urged officials to consider clearly defining the minimum requirements in the permanent rules so there’s a “floor of accountability” for who’s teaching students.
“To me it just seems willy-nilly to just say or equivalent experience,” she said. “It’s just not good enough. I think our kids deserve better.”
The emergency rules approved by the Joint Education Committee Monday will be replaced by permanent rules, which the State Board of Education last week approved to release for public comment. ADE will use the feedback to recommend any proposed changes, which will be brought back to the board. Details about the public comment period have not yet been announced.
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.
The Arkansas Supreme Court on Thursday granted Arkansas Attorney General Tim Griffin’s request to expedite his appeal of the ruling. The high court’s decision is likely to come after the law takes effect on Aug. 1.
ADE officials told lawmakers Monday that the Pulaski County judge’s order was a declaratory order, not an injunction, so steps may be taken to prepare for the LEARNS Act going into effect next month, such as approving these emergency rules.
ADE began accepting EFA applications from students and schools on June 20. Chief General Counsel Andrés Rhodes said Monday that about 2,000 of the 3,400 students who have applied for the program have been approved so far. Additionally, around 83 schools’ applications have been approved, with a handful of others pending, he said.
The EFA program will be phased in over three years with first-year participation limited to 1.5% of the state’s current public school enrollment, or roughly 7,148 students. Inaugural year eligibility includes students with disabilities, students enrolled in an “F”-rated school or students enrolling in kindergarten for the first time.
Rep. Brit McKenzie, R-Rogers, asked how the state had been disseminating information about the program. Salas-Ford said while program information was posted on ADE’s website, promotion of the program has been primarily through third parties, independent organizations or private schools that have chosen to advertise the information. ADE also sent information to public schools, but no money was committed to marketing materials, she said.
The EFA application deadline is Aug. 1. Students can continue applying after that date, but their acceptance into the program will be contingent upon available funds. The program will be capped at approximately $46 million for the 2023-2024 school year, Rhodes said.
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