Public School Advocates Urge Arkansas Legislature to End Broken Voucher Program
September 10, 2020
In a letter sent to Arkansas legislative leaders last week, Public Funds Public Schools, along with other state and national organizations, urged the Arkansas General Assembly to end the state’s harmful and inequitable private school voucher program. The letter highlights alarming information revealed in the recently released biennial report on the “Succeed Scholarship Program,” Arkansas’ voucher program for students with disabilities and students in the foster care system.
The letter was signed by leading advocates for Arkansas students and families, including Arkansas Advocates for Children and Families, Arkansas Citizens First Congress, the Arkansas Public Policy Panel, and Arkansas-based philanthropic and education leader Dr. Sybil Jordan Hampton. In addition to PFPS, several regional and national education advocacy groups also signed on, including Education Law Center and SPLC Action Fund (which collaborate on PFPS), and the Southern Education Foundation.
“The 2020 Report illustrates in detail the glaring deficiencies in Succeed Vouchers’ ability to improve academic outcomes and promote equity and access for historically – and currently – marginalized students. It also illustrates the profound difficulties in ensuring appropriate oversight of this publicly-funded program,” the letter notes.
The State’s 2020 Report, which was mandated by bipartisan legislation passed in 2019, also underscores the lack of data necessary to evaluate the academic effects of the Succeed Vouchers, noting that “meaningful comparative data regarding student performance based on the assessment scores private schools provide is hindered by several factors.” The academic outcome information that was collected, however, shows low test scores for the majority of voucher recipients. This failing is consistent with research demonstrating the ineffectiveness of private school voucher programs across the country in improving students’ academic outcomes.
The 2020 Report also exposes inequitable enrollment statistics, troubling data inconsistencies, and little accountability for the public funds spent on the voucher program. Key findings include:
- There are significant gaps in data on the racial demographics of voucher students. Of those for whom data was available, there are significant racial disparities: 5% of voucher students were Latinx, 12% were Black, and 78% were White. Students with disabilities in Arkansas public schools, on the other hand, are 11% Latinx, 23% Black, and 61% White.
- Due to participating private schools’ inconsistent reporting and data collection standards, the Free or Reduced Price Lunch (FRPL) status of 44% of participating students is unreported. Of available data, just 30% of voucher students were eligible for FRPL, while 60% of Arkansas public school students are eligible.
- Only three-quarters of participating private schools are accredited, while a quarter are on some type of path to accreditation. Thus, schools participating in the voucher program are receiving taxpayer dollars without completing a rigorous accreditation process, let alone being held to the same accountability and reporting standards as public schools.
- Nearly 20% of voucher students have left their private schools, for reasons including dismissal, inability to pay tuition amounts not covered by their voucher, and lack of access to transportation.
The letter to Arkansas lawmakers notes that, as more resources are needed to meet students’ needs due to COVID-19, the impact of the pandemic on Arkansas’ education budget will be over $2 billion for the next fiscal year, making it more urgent than ever to focus limited public funds on effective, research-based programs that meet the needs of Arkansas’ public school students, who are the vast majority of Arkansas schoolchildren. Instead of diverting millions to an ineffective and inequitable voucher program, the letter urges legislators to “redirect those public funds to the public school system in order to improve educational opportunity for students with disabilities, foster care students, and students from low-income families.”