Bill to increase voucher-eligible schools clears hurdle

A bill that would expand the number of private schools eligible to participate in a special-needs education voucher program passed on a voice vote with no dissent in the House Education Committee Thursday.

The Succeed Scholarship is a voucher program enacted by the legislature in 2015 that uses public tax dollars to pay for students with special needs to attend private schools. The student must have an Individualized Education Program, an education plan for children with disabilities in accordance with federal law, and must have attended a public school for one year. In order to participate in the scholarship, parents are required to waive their child’s federal civil rights protections under the United States' Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.

The Reform Alliance, a nonprofit organization that promotes school choice, administers the scholarship, which is capped at 100 vouchers worth $6,646 per student for the 2016-17 school year. That sum is the base amount of per-pupil funding that a public school would receive from the state to educate the student. When a student receives a Succeed Scholarship, the money is instead diverted to a private school. The scholarship is available to any family regardless of household income.

All participating schools must meet the state Board of Education’s accreditation requirements. But House Bill 1461 would loosen that restriction and allow nonaccredited schools to participate as long as a school has applied for accreditation. A school would then have four years to attain accreditation, during which time students would be eligible for the scholarship.

Rep. Carlton Wing (R-North Little Rock), lead sponsor of the bill, said, “The Succeed Scholarship itself passed unanimously in both houses two years ago and that was the heavy lifting. This just helps a few more schools get involved, which helps a few more families get that support.”

Tracey-Ann Nelson, executive director of the Arkansas Education Association, which represents public school teachers, testified against the bill. She said waiving a student’s civil rights leaves “the most vulnerable students unprotected.” In addition, she noted that private schools are not subject to the same oversight and accountability as public schools.

"House Bill 1461 seeks to make a problematic law worse. This bill seeks to allow public funds to go to private, unaccountable and unaccredited schools," she said.

Twenty schools are currently eligible to participate in the scholarship program, “only about one-fourth of private schools in the state,” Katie Clifford, executive director of The Reform Alliance, said. Five private schools that serve special needs students had applied to take part in the scholarship program, but were ineligible because they lacked accreditation. All of the schools have since applied for accreditation, which takes about two years, Clifford said.

“That was the reason for the bill,” Clifford said, referring to the length of time it takes for schools to be accredited.

This school year was the first year the Succeed Scholarship was in place. Twenty-four students took advantage of the voucher. Clifford said most of the parents who were interested in participating in the scholarship program send their children to one of the five schools currently seeking accreditation. Those schools are Access Group Inc., The Academy at Riverdale, and Chenal Valley Montessori School in Little Rock; Compass Academy in Conway; and Equip K-12 Academy in Jonesboro.

Succeed Scholarships are distributed on a first-come, first-serve basis and no questions are asked about a family’s income, Clifford said. Tuition at Access Academy is $9,050 a year, according to Cheri Stevenson, director of Academy and Adult Services at Access Group Inc., who also testified for the bill. With a Succeed Scholarship, parents would still need to pay $2,404 out-of-pocket to send their child to Access Academy.

Maria Markham, director of Arkansas’s Department of Higher Education, testified at the committee hearing Thursday.

“I’m the mother of a 9-year-old, severely autistic child who attends Access Academy,” she said.

Markham said her son needed more support than her public school was equipped to provide and that Access Academy provides her son four times the amount of therapy he received in public school.

“I am lucky enough to have an occupation that allows me to pay the tuition at Access. I can’t help but think there are a lot of families out there that don’t have that luxury. They can’t afford to send their special needs children to these types of private schools,” she said.

The AEA's Nelson said, “What happens is this emotional blackmail about single, personal stories rather than the picture of what needs to be. These are public education dollars that are being privatized.”

The bill now goes to the full House.

Two other bills seek to expand the Succeed Scholarship Program. House Bill 1567 would make foster children eligible to participate and House Bill 1056 would allow a superintendent to waive the requirement that a student attend public school for at least one year. Both bills have not yet been heard in committee.

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