Educational Freedom Account Program: A new era for Arkansas schools


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Eureka Springs, Arkansas – The Clear Spring School in Eureka Springs, which is among the 83 Arkansas schools partaking in the initial year of the state’s education voucher initiative, has commenced its academic session.

Jessica FitzPatrick, the school’s Head, shed light on the institution’s reasons for participating in the state’s Educational Freedom Account Program (EFA). “One of our stated goals is social justice and socioeconomic access to independent schools… the EFA program is worthwhile to us because I feel like that’s really important, that socioeconomics not prevent a family from making the choice to send their child here,” remarked FitzPatrick.

The EFA program, established by the LEARNS Act, grants state-funded aid for permitted educational expenses, encompassing private school fees. For the 2023-2024 academic cycle, each account will receive roughly $6,600. The typical tuition fee at EFA-associated institutions averages around $7,400. The tuition at Clear Spring School varies between approximately $9,500 and $11,500. However, according to FitzPatrick, a significant portion of their student body, estimated between 75% to 80%, benefits from financial scholarships, primarily financed through fundraising endeavors.

Accessing EFA funds could allow Clear Spring to redirect its fundraising revenues towards other institutional priorities, one of them being raising educator salaries, a crucial area as pointed out by FitzPatrick. Notably, teacher salaries at Clear Spring fluctuate between $25,000 to $35,000. Contrastingly, the LEARNS Act mandates a minimum wage of $50,000 for public school educators, a stipulation not binding for private schools.

Amidst these financial realignments, Easterseals Academy, a Little Rock-based private institution catering to students with disabilities, has increased its tuition from $10,650 to $14,250. This decision aims at aligning their educator salaries with market rates. Consequently, both the institution and its student families have intensified fundraising to manage this tuition hike.

Allison Grigsby Sweatman, whose son with Down Syndrome is enrolled at Easterseals and is benefiting from the EFA program, expressed reservations about a generalized voucher scheme. She opined that such a system overlooks the persistent underfunding issues plaguing special education in Arkansas. Grigsby Sweatman emphasized the urgent need to invest in comprehensive, state-of-the-art public special education services. It’s worth noting that she has previously vied for a legislative seat in Arkansas as a Democratic contender.

Shedding light on the participation metrics, as of August 1, schools and students concluded their enrollments for the EFA program’s debut year. The Arkansas Department of Education has set aside $46.7 million for the inaugural year of this voucher initiative. Funds will be systematically disbursed in quarterly segments to qualifying students at participating institutions. Furthermore, to oversee the program effectively, the department could retain up to 5% of the allocated funds for administrative purposes.

Kimberly Mundell, spokesperson for the Arkansas Department of Education, highlighted that the Succeed Scholarship Program, which catered to students with disabilities, military children, and those in foster care, has been absorbed by the EFA program. Existing beneficiaries from the 2022-2023 academic year will retain their scholarship values, conforming to the LEARNS Act’s provisions.

Regarding eligibility and participation dynamics, ADE officials indicate a phased EFA rollout over a three-year window. Initial eligibility requirements encompass criteria like disability and first-time kindergarten enrollment. Patrick Wolf from the University of Arkansas predicts a substantial influx of private school students once universal eligibility becomes a reality. Echoing a precedent, Arizona observed a similar trend when it introduced its universal program in 2022.

In a final note, Governor Sarah Huckabee Sanders, through her communication director Alexa Henning, conveyed her satisfaction regarding the inaugural year’s turnout, both in terms of student and school numbers. She expressed her enthusiasm, stating, “The Governor wants to empower every parent in Arkansas to determine what is best to put their child on a path to success.” The precise number of participating schools, however, requires further clarity due to varying reports.


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