Most students receiving vouchers to attend private school through Arkansas LEARNS, the state’s new education overhaul, will be on the hook to pay some of the tuition costs out of pocket this year because the vouchers do not cover the full amount of tuition.
LEARNS was sold as a lifeline for poor families stuck in failing public schools. But many voucher families are currently paying thousands of dollars out of pocket because the schools are significantly more expensive than what the voucher provides. That would likely make those schools prohibitively expensive for many lower-income families, even with the help of a voucher.
Around 79% of voucher students this year are attending schools that charge some or all students an annual tuition greater than $6,672, the amount of per-student funding available this year via a voucher.
Around 38% attend schools with tuition rates above $10,000 for at least some students.
These numbers give a rough but imperfect picture. Some schools have differences in tuition based upon factors like grade level or church membership/affiliation. (One school even charges different tuitions based upon whether the education is virtual, in-person or hybrid.) From data released by the state, we know how many voucher students attend each school, but we don’t know precisely under which tuition category they fall.
Some schools may charge above the voucher line for non-Catholics or older students, but below the voucher line for Catholics or kindergartners. We can only guesstimate how those numbers might break down. But the majority of schools — around 52% — charge more than the voucher amount to all students.
Moreover, these figures include only tuition. Most schools have significant required out-of-pocket costs such as registration, fees or supplies that can add quite a bit to the total. Such additional expenses can also be covered by a voucher, along with tuition, but only up to $6,672.
For more on the methodology behind these numbers, and some additional ways to break them down, see below. But the overall trend is clear: Most voucher students are attending schools that require significant spending from parents to even cover the cost of tuition (to say nothing of additional required expenses) — particularly for older students or non-church members.
From the beginning, critics of LEARNS have expressed concerns that many families would be priced out of schools they wanted to attend even with the vouchers.
This problem could get worse in the coming years if private schools raise tuition in response to the law, particularly once all students become eligible to apply in 2025-26 and future years. Some private schools in Florida and Iowa, for example, have raised tuition this year in response to new voucher programs, justifying the increases by pointing to the new public money available for parents to defray the costs.
In an email in August, Olivia Gardner, director of education policy for Arkansas Advocates for Children and Families, said that the law’s design threatened to shut out lower-income families:
We are definitely concerned that families with lower incomes will be sidelined by the [voucher] program and that wealthier families whose children were already in private schools stand to benefit the most.
In Arizona, the state expanded their voucher program to be unlimited like ours will be in year 3 of the LEARNS Act, and it’s not only nearly bankrupted their state, but the average voucher is about $7,000, while the average cost of private school tuition in Arizona has gone up to $10,000.
Iowa is implementing their own voucher program right now, too, and they are already seeing private school tuition increase upwards of 30-40% according to local news reports.
These two examples demonstrate to me, that over time what we are likely to see is that the families who were already able to pay for private school tuition will still be able to do so, at a subsidized price, and the families with low incomes, who were supposed to be the priority, will be left out.
Given these constraints, it’s possible that LEARNS will tend to attract families already attending private school (or who would have chosen private schools even without the vouchers). As of Sept. 20, 4,795 students were active participants in the LEARNS voucher program, according to an annual report released by the state Department of Education. Of those, around 95% did not attend public school last year, including new kindergartners and students continuing to attend private school.
Of those 4,795 voucher students:
- There are 1,007 (21 percent) attending schools where tuition for all students is at or below the voucher line, meaning parents would not have to pay out of pocket.
- There are 1,944 (40.5 percent) attending schools where tuition for at least some students is greater than the voucher line but less than $10,000.
- There are 1,844 (38.5 percent) attending schools where tuition for at least some students is great than $10,000.
A few notes on the methodology for these numbers:
As noted above, some schools have incremental differences in tuition depending on the age of the student, church affiliation of the family or other factors. The state’s data shows how many voucher students attend each school, but not which category they fall under. For the purposes of this estimate, we looked at the highest tuition charged, to identify schools where at least some students would face significant out of pocket costs. In addition to the voucher line ($6,672 this year), we looked at schools with tuitions north of $10,000 to identify situations where paying the tuition would be cost-prohibitive for even more families despite the help from a voucher.
For example, Central Arkansas Christian Schools charges kindergartners $9,093, first to sixth graders $9,861 and seventh to twelfth graders $10,755. We are categorizing Central Arkansas Christian in the third group (above $10,000), but younger students are actually charged a bit less than $10,000. Or take the tuition rates at Immaculate Conception Catholic School in North Little Rock: $8,150 for non-Catholics, $6,300 for Catholics or $5,100 for tithing Catholics. For the purposes of this breakdown, we are including the school in the group that charges more than the voucher amount, but we don’t know precisely how many voucher students are getting the discount for church affiliation.
We chose to use the higher tuition number for our three general categories because a) students getting a cheaper rate because they’re younger will eventually face the higher rate for older students and b) since the mission of a publicly funded voucher program is ostensibly to be open to the general public, we wanted to track the tuition at religious schools that would apply to the general public, not just those affiliated with a particular church.
Here are the numbers if you instead break things down by the lowest tuition, which is often only available to a certain subset of students at the school (such as church members, kindergartners, etc.): 2,475 students (51.6%) attend schools that do not offer tuition at or below the voucher line to any student; 991 students (or 20.7%) attend schools that do not offer tuition below $10,000 to any student.
Because enrollment is limited to certain categories this year, 31% of the voucher students are first-time kindergartners. If a school has multiple tuition categories based on age, kindergarten would be the lowest, so that may skew the numbers. Typically the various tuition categories are in the same general range, but to take the example of Central Arkansas Christian, there’s a good chance that a decent chunk of those students are kindergartners paying the lower rate. That said, most voucher students this year are not kindergartners and the coming higher rates will quickly become relevant if younger students continue to receive vouchers in future years (those enrolled this year will be given preference in future years to stay in the program).
We are planning a follow-up report that includes other required out-of-pocket costs, but these numbers only include tuition. Additional costs can be significant. For example, Christ the King Catholic School in Little Rock charges between $5,800 and $10,282 in tuition. But it also charges $170-280 in registration, $620 in fees and a one-time fee of $1,000-$1,750 for the school building fund. Inclusion of such costs, which can amount to hundreds of dollars or more, would bump up many of the schools we’re currently listing as below the voucher line or the $10,000 mark.