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  • Mar 31 2015

Breaking Down Arkansas’s School Voucher Bill

The Arkansas legislature has passed House Bill 1552, a school voucher for children with disabilities and the state’s first school choice program. Arkansas’s school voucher bill, which passed with strong bipartisan support, is now headed to Gov. Asa Hutchinson’s desk.

With his signature, Arkansas will become the nation’s 25th state to adopt a school choice program, which allows parents to withdraw their children from public schools and receive an allowance of public funds in the form of a voucher to pay tuition at the school of their choice. Scholarships would be awarded beginning in the 2016-17 school year.

With his signature, Arkansas will become the nation’s 25th state to adopt a school choice program, which allows parents to withdraw their children from public schools and receive an allowance of public funds in the form of a voucher to pay tuition at the school of their choice.

We consider it an honor to have been invited over the years to educate and collaborate with local partners, advocates, and policymakers in Arkansas who worked so hard to bring this legislation (details below) to fruition.

ARKANSAS SENATE

Today the Arkansas Senate passed HB 1552, the Succeed Scholarship Program for Students with Disabilities, authored by Rep. Douglas House (R), attorney and retired U.S. Army colonel. The Arkansas House of Representatives previously passed the bill with bipartisan 90-0 vote. The sections below represent the key parameters of this voucher proposal.

STUDENT FUNDING

The Arkansas Department of Education, other agency, or designated firm or corporation yet to be determined will disburse payments to participating private schools that have accepted eligible students. Each student’s voucher will be funded at the public school foundation funding amount for the current school year, up to and not to exceed the amount of tuition and fees at the private school.

No funds from the Arkansas Public School Fund and no funds designated for public schools will be used to fund the vouchers; similarly, no county, city or school district tax revenues will be used to fund the program. No contract will exist between the state and private schools; the role of the state with respect to providing funding for students to private schools is to disburse funds.

STUDENT ELIGIBILITY

If Gov. Hutchinson signs this bill into law, a public school student who has attended at least one year in public schools and has an Individualized Education Plan (IEP), and a student who is a dependent of an active duty member of the U.S. Armed Forces (no prior public school attendance required), may be eligible for a voucher. The student’s parent must notify the public school (if applicable) at least 60 days prior to accepting the first voucher payment.

REGULATIONS ON PROVIDERS

The legislation requires participating private schools to:

  • be accredited by the Arkansas State Board of Education, the Arkansas Nonpublic School Accrediting Association, or another accrediting association recognized by the state board of education as providing services to individuals with severe disabilities,
  • be in business for at least one year, provide a CPA validated statement of fiscal solvency and insurance coverage, or provide a surety bond or letter of credit for the amount of scholarship funds for any quarter,
  • comply with health and safety laws that apply to private schools,
  • be accountable to parents for meeting the educational needs of the student,
  • semi-annually affirm under oath that the student has been enrolled in, and is attending and participating in, the school,
  • employ teachers with no less than a bachelor’s degree,
  • comply with federal antidiscrimination provisions,
  • comply with existing laws governing private schools, and
  • adhere to the tenets of the private school’s published disciplinary rules before expulsion of any student receiving a voucher.

Participating private schools shall administer annually a nationally recognized norm-referenced test as established by the state board of education. In the event a student with an IEP is exempted from testing, the private school shall prepare annually for the student’s parents a portfolio providing evidence of the student’s progress.

The legislation affirms that a private school participating in the program remains autonomous and is not an agent of the state or of an Arkansas school district; that the department of education shall not regulate the educational program or curriculum of a private school under the program; and that the regulatory power of the state is not expanded as a consequence of this program.

NEXT STEPS

Arkansas’s school voucher legislation will head to Gov. Asa Hutchinson (R) for signature. Although he has previously indicated some skepticism about vouchers, his recent tapping of former state Sen. Johnny Key, a known supporter of free market education reforms, to be the new Arkansas Education Commissioner allows advocates of school choice to be hopeful that he will sign this bill into law and help thousands of children with disabilities in Arkansas access the educational opportunities they need.

ARKANSAS’S SCHOOL VOUCHER UPDATE – December 10, 2015

On April 8, 2015, Gov. Asa Hutchinson signed this bill into law, officially making Arkansas the 25th state to enact a school choice program. For the most up-to-date information on Arkansas’s school voucher, including eligibility data and rules, click here.

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