Groups interested in education equity (shown above) have written legislative leaders about shortcomings in the accountability report on the Arkansas Succeed Scholarship Program, a state-funded school voucher program for children with learning disabilities and children in foster care. They say the program should be abolished.

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Here’s the letter.

The 2019 legislature required an annual report on the program. The letter has this to say about the 2020 report.

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While the Legislature is to be commended for instituting such accountability measures, no level of accountability or transparency can change the fact that Succeed Vouchers, like all private school voucher programs, divert crucial public dollars from the state’s public schools, which educate over 93 percent of
Arkansas’ students, including the vast majority of those with disabilities or in foster care.

Consistent with national data demonstrating the ineffectiveness of private school vouchers to improve academic outcomes, the recently released biennial report on Succeed Vouchers (the “2020 Report”) reveals several troubling findings. It shows stark data challenges in ascertaining the program’s academic effects; however, the academic achievement information that could be collected from student participants reveals low test scores for the majority of voucher recipients. The report also exposes
inequitable enrollment statistics, troubling data inconsistences, and little accountability for Arkansas’ public funds spent on this program. For these reasons, we urge the Legislature to eliminate Succeed Vouchers, especially as it grapples with unprecedented revenue shortfalls and increased resource needs of public schools and Local Education Agencies due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The program has support from the powerful school “choice” lobby supported by the Walton Family Foundation (it funded the organization, the Reform Alliance, that administers the voucher program) and some other wealthy Arkansans. Recently, Sen. Bart Hester tried to slide a proposal through a special committee to expand the program with federal coronavirus money.

More specifics from the letter:

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There are significant gaps in data on the racial demographics of students participating in the program. Of the population of voucher students for whom data was available, 5 percent were Latinx, 12 percent were Black, and 78 percent were White. Students with disabilities in Arkansas public schools, on the other hand, are 11 percent Latinx, 23 percent Black, and 61 percent White.

Although Succeed Vouchers are funded by a state appropriation, voucher recipients are not statewide, but concentrated in cities and suburbs, with over one-third in Little Rock, Arkansas.

The provision of “meaningful comparative data regarding student performance based on the assessment scores private schools provide is hindered by several factors” (p.12). Private schools accepting Succeed Vouchers do not administer a uniform norm- or criterion-referenced assessment of their students’ academic progress, and it is not possible to link student test scores from before and after receiving a voucher, thus preventing any type of meaningful comparison or analysis of academic outcomes for voucher students. However, the assessment data that was collected shows troubling education outcomes.

Participating private schools use inconsistent reporting and data collection standards for students’ eligibility for Free or Reduced Price Lunch (FRPL), revealing that the FRPL status of 44 percent of participating students is either unavailable or not provided by participating private schools. Of available data, just 30% of voucher students were eligible for FRPL, while 60% of Arkansas public school students are eligible.

Only three-fourths of participating private schools are accredited, while a quarter are on some type of path to accreditation. Thus, schools participating in the program are receiving taxpayer dollars without completing a rigorous accreditation process, let alone being held to the same or similar 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 Arkansas constitution expressly obligates the state to “maintain a general, suitable, and efficient system of public schools and . . . adopt all suitable means to secure to the people the advantages and opportunities of education.” Arkansas has a fundamental duty under its constitution to use public resources for the advancement of public schools and their students. Arkansas’ Succeed Vouchers undermine that objective, making it more difficult for the state to fulfill its constitutional duty to public
school students.

Critics of the program have questioned whether all private schools in the program had staff qualified to meet the needs of the students. And critics also contended any student with a special education plan, sometimes for comparatively easy-to-address issues, such as hearing impairment, could access the program.

Despite budget pressures on public schools, the governor is standing firm on spending $3 million on the Success vouchers (enough for about 400 students) and additionally has committed another $6 million in federal CARES Act money to the vouchers ($1 million) or the new fad, micro schools ($5 million) in which entrepreneurs are selling home-instruction programs to small groups of parents who band together for schooling.

It’s the wrong direction, the letter says.

With an economic downturn not seen since the Great Depression and historic protests of systemic discrimination and racism toward Black Americans, we are experiencing a life-changing moment that demands we seize real opportunities for education justice. One crucial strategy to address racial inequity is to make long-overdue investments in public schools serving, and accountable to, Arkansas’ low-income communities and communities of color. This includes rejecting efforts to divert public funds to a parallel
program of private education that hinders academic progress and undermines students’ civil rights. Public education serves as a foundational base for a vibrant economy, opportunity for social mobility, and, indeed, democracy itself. As the Arkansas constitution requires, investments must be made to guarantee the right to a free, high-quality public education for each and every Arkansas student.

We ask the Arkansas General Assembly to dismantle Succeed Vouchers and 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. We welcome the opportunity to discuss our analysis of the 2020 Report and other pressing concerns related to private school vouchers and education
equity.

The letter, to chairs of the education and Joint Budget committees (with copies to the governor and others), is signed by:

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Rich Huddleston,
Executive Director
Arkansas Advocates for Children and Families

Bill Kopsky
Executive Director
Arkansas Citizens First Congress & the Arkansas Public Policy Panel

David G. Sciarra
Executive Director
Education Law Center

Jessica Levin
Director
Public Funds Public Schools

Raymond C. Pierce
President and CEO
Southern Education Foundation

Bacardi Jackson
Managing Attorney;
Katherine Dunn
Regional Policy Analyst
SPLC Action Fund

Dr. Sybil Jordan Hampton
Philanthropist and Education Leader