Arkansas lawmakers approve emergency rules for new school voucher program

By: - July 20, 2023 1:23 pm
Courtney Salas-Ford and Andrés Rhodes

Arkansas Department of Education officials Courtney Salas-Ford and Andrés Rhodes answer questions from members of the Arkansas Legislative Council’s Executive Subcommittee on July 20, 2023 at the state Capitol. (Screenshot from livestream)

The Arkansas Legislative Council’s Executive subcommittee on Thursday reviewed and approved proposed emergency rules governing the state’s new education voucher program. 

The Senate and House Interim Committees on Education recommended them for review and approval on Monday. The Legislative Council will consider final approval on Friday.

A provision of 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 emergency rules are necessary to allow the Arkansas Department of Education to put in place procedures to determine student eligibility, select service providers, implement account and program audits, and enroll students in the EFA program before the start of the academic year, ADE Chief Legal Counsel Andrés Rhodes wrote in a letter to lawmakers.

The emergency rules will go into effect at 12:01 a.m. on Aug. 1, co-chair Sen. Terry Rice, R-Waldron, said, the same day the LEARNS Act takes effect. The temporary rules will eventually be replaced by permanent rules that will be subject to public comment and final approval by the Arkansas State Board of Education. Details about the public comment period have not yet been released.

The Education Department allocated $46.7 million in state funds for the first year of the EFA program. The department will disburse the funds for qualifying students directly to a participating school or service provider in quarterly installments, according to the emergency rules. ADE may withhold up to 5% of funds allocated for EFA for the purpose of program administration.

An education service provider can be a business, nonprofit or other entity besides a nonpublic or public school that offers education materials or services that are qualifying expenses reimbursable by EFA funds, according to the emergency rules.

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ADE began accepting EFA program applications on June 20. Nearly 3,400 students have applied for the EFA program and more than 2,400 have been approved so far, Rhodes said Thursday. If every student who’s been approved uses all the funds allotted to their account, the fiscal impact will be just under $16 million, he said.

“However, this is an estimate and does not account for the pending applications and the possibility that some students may not utilize all the funds in their EFAs in the upcoming school year,” Rhodes said. 

The 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 around 7,000, ADE Chief of Staff Courtney Salas-Ford said. 

When asked about projected participation by co-chair Rep. Jeff Wardlaw, R-Hermitage, Salas-Ford said she doesn’t anticipate they’ll reach the first-year participation cap unless there’s a huge influx of submissions in the last week of the application period, which ends Aug. 1.

Students can continue applying after that date, but their acceptance into the program will be contingent upon available funds. 

Arkansas private schools navigate new voucher application process

Inaugural year eligibility includes students with disabilities, students experiencing homelessness, students attending an “F”- rated school or school in need of Level 5 support, foster children, children of active duty military members, Succeed Scholarship recipients and first-time kindergarteners. The Succeed Scholarship program was folded into the EFA program.

According to the emergency rules, students enrolled in the program shall remain eligible until they enroll full-time in a public school, graduate from high school or turn 21.

Private schools must have been in operation for at least one year to participate in the EFA program or provide a statement by a certified public accountant confirming the school is insured and has sufficient capital or credit to operate in the upcoming school year. A school can also file a surety bond or letter of credit with ADE for the amount equal to the account funds needed by the school for any quarter.

A listing of participating schools and service providers names, qualifying materials, services offered and relevant credentials will be made available on ADE’s website, according to the emergency rules.

ADE must also administer a survey to account holders to assess their satisfaction with the administration of the program. The rules require that the survey open no later than Feb. 1, 2024 and close no sooner than March 31, 2024.  

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 last week 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.

Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders’ newly-appointed justice Cody Hiland recused himself from the case last week. Sanders has appointed Cory Cox as a special justice to replace Hiland on the case.

Cox was a chief of staff for former Attorney General Leslie Rutledge and a former law partner of Hiland.


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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.