$1.3 million appropriation would expand voucher program

The Joint Budget Committee adopted an amendment last week to expand the appropriation for a special needs voucher program. An earlier version of the appropriation bill for the state Department of Education called for $800,000 to fund the Succeed Scholarship program for the 2017-18 school year, the same amount of money for the program that was appropriated in the 2016 fiscal session of the General Assembly. The amended version increases the appropriation to $1.3 million.

Legislation enacted in 2015 established the Succeed Scholarship, a voucher program 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. 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 State Board of Education capped the program at 100 vouchers for the 2016-17 school year, the first year the program was available. Subsequent years do not have a voucher cap and are dependent on available funding.

Twenty-four students took advantage of the voucher this school year, according to Katie Clifford, executive director of The Reform Alliance, a nonprofit organization that promotes school choice and is tasked with administering the scholarship 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. If approved, the $1.3 million appropriation for the 2017-18 school year would pay for about 200 vouchers.

There have been several attempts to expand the Succeed Scholarship this legislative session, including a bill Governor Hutchinson signed into law that permits nonaccredited schools to participate in the voucher program 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.

Before that law passed, 20 schools were eligible to participate in the scholarship program, “only about one-fourth of private schools in the state,” Clifford said in an interview in February, adding that most of the parents who were interested in participating in the scholarship program send their children to one of five schools currently seeking accreditation.

A bill that would also expand the program to foster children passed in a 30-1 vote in the Senate Monday. House Bill 1567 would make foster children living in group homes eligible for a scholarship. In a departure from the original intent of the voucher program, the children would not need to have an Individualized Education Program to qualify. Up to 20 vouchers could go to foster children.

Another bill that Hutchinson signed into law allows superintendents to waive the requirement that a student attend public school for a year before being eligible to participate in the Succeed Scholarship.

This reporting is courtesy of the Arkansas Nonprofit News Network, an independent, nonpartisan news project dedicated to producing journalism that matters to Arkansans.

The Arkansas Nonprofit News Network is an independent, nonpartisan news organization dedicated to producing journalism that matters to Arkansans. Our work is re-published by partner newsrooms across the state.