Olivia Paschal reports today for Facing South on criticism of the state’s first school voucher program, the “Succeed Scholarship,” which now provides up to $7,000 a year to send 479 students, many with learning disabilities, to private schools.

The program has grown 20 fold from its beginning and was cited repeatedly during the recent legislative session as a success and a reason for the expansion of school vouchers to another 250 children in a $2 million program that was passed over public school opposition in the final days of the session.

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Writes Paschal:

But parents and education advocates are questioning how accountable the program is to the state and whether it adequately serves students with complex needs. They also point to the program’s lack of accessibility for families in poverty, the geographic concentration of recipients, and the requirement that participating parents or guardians temporarily sign away their child’s right to a “free and appropriate” public education under the federal Individuals With Disabilities Education Act, meaning they have little legal recourse if a private school fails their student. In addition, private schools do not have to be accredited to take Succeed Scholarship vouchers — they just need to show they’re on the path to accreditation.

“We’re doing a disservice to families across the state by not being open and honest about the services they may or may not get,” said Tom Masseau, the executive director of Disability Rights Arkansas.

As Paschal notes, many of these same arguments were raised in the pitched debate over the voucher program expansion, lobbied extensively by the usual network of Walton family-funded school “choice” backers.

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Even the state Education Department acknowledges it can’t monitor what’s being provided in private schools as it does with public schools.

A key focus of Paschal’s report is the Hannah School, based in Maumelle and established for children with dyslexia. In a 2020 legislative report, it had the most scholarship enrollees of any private school, with 64 (worth more than $4 million a year in public money.)

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From Paschal’s account:

Several parents who received the scholarship for their children to attend the Hannah School, a private school near Little Rock for children with dyslexia, told Facing South they feel misled and dissatisfied with the education their children received.

“While making the decision to place my child at the Hannah School I thought the school had to meet these qualifications,” said Sonia Fonticiella, an attorney whose elementary-age child received the Succeed Scholarship to attend the Hannah School. “I remember looking at the paperwork and believing that if the state certified this school to educate children with this specific learning difference, it had to be legitimate. I believed the state standards set out meant the state also had a vetting process and a check and balance process to ensure state funds were being put to good use.”

Problems at the school became apparent early last fall when at least eight parents emailed ADE to say they planned to withdraw their children and transfer them to other schools, though several eventually changed their minds and were allowed to switch their Succeed Scholarship back to the Hannah School.

Around the same time, ADE received emails from several parents alleging that the school was violating the rules governing the scholarship by failing to hire only teachers with bachelor’s degrees or higher, not employing a licensed special education teacher, not being “academically accountable” to parents and guardians — a requirement for Succeed Scholarship eligibility —  and not administering a nationally recognized norms-referenced test or providing parents or guardians with portfolios and reports of their students’ progress. According to an internal document reviewed by Facing South, at one point last year the Hannah School employed six teachers with a bachelor’s degree or higher, five “teaching staff” with no bachelor’s degree, one teaching assistant with no bachelor’s degree, and two for whom education levels were unspecified.

School leadership appeared to acknowledge the shortcomings in a video posted to the school’s website; it has since been removed but Facing South obtained a copy. “We were not in compliance with the policies set forth by the Department of Education” for receiving the scholarship, school co-founder and then-board member Shawnda Majors said in the video, adding that ADE “have been giving us some grace.”

The accusations of lax standards came amid wider chaos at the school, with private parent messages and Facebook groups roiled with charges of leadership problems. Some parents who had been planning to relocate their children to another school — and take the Succeed Scholarships with them — changed their mind. Majors resigned and left the school altogether. Shelly Bennet, at the time the third board member, also resigned and pulled her child out of the Hannah School. She’s currently homeschooling him.

“I just wanted to take my child out because I knew they were not doing a good intervention program,” said Bennet. “I don’t even know what to call that place. It has been, in my 48 years, one of the biggest mistakes I’ve ever made.” After her time on the board, she said, she’d also become concerned that the school was not meeting all the requirements of the Succeed Scholarship program and was being financially mismanaged.

Side comment: A private school gets “grace.” The Little Rock School District gets none in going on seven years of state control.

The state said Hannah has addressed some of the complaints, but the department attorney, Courtney Salas-Ford SAID:

“academic accountability,” a requirement laid out in the program’s rules, is “very difficult to measure” and thus for ADE to enforce. She also told Facing South that the department considers only those defined by the school itself as “teachers” to be teachers.

Melissa Hannah, a leader of the school, did not respond to Paschal’s requests for comment.

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Paschal mentioned problems at other schools. She also noted:

The first biennial report on the Succeed Scholarship, released last spring, showed that more than half of scholarship recipients were concentrated at three schools in Central Arkansas, including the Hannah School — two in or near Little Rock and one in Conway. These schools each had more than 60 scholarship recipients, in some cases making up more than half of the student body. The report also noted that more than 25% of all scholarship recipients were in Little Rock. The majority of schools with students receiving the scholarship are Christian schools.

Critics of the program point out that Arkansas is a rural state, and many rural areas don’t have private schools at all — let alone private schools that could serve children with disabilities. But [Doug] House, the bill’s original sponsor, said that is not the state’s problem. Parents of children with educational needs not being met in their home district, House said, should not rely on the state for help — even though federal law gives children with disabilities a right to a free, appropriate education. “The smart thing they should do, if that’s a priority for them, is move to a place where those needs can be met,” he said.

That’s not an adequate answer for many education advocates. “The state is pouring money into these programs while continuing to underfund special education services,” said Sujith Cherukumilli of the nonprofit Southern Education Foundation. “If you relegate the public schools and the special education systems within them to failure, you’re not really providing any options for them.”

Advocates also question whether the Succeed Scholarship is accessible to everyone who might need it. “Anecdotally, what we have seen is that those with disabilities that are primary learning disabilities [like] ADHD, charter schools and these other schools are more apt to take them in,” said Masseau of Disability Rights Arkansas. “Students with severe disabilities — those in wheelchairs, those with dexterity [problems] or whatever it might be — are less likely to be admitted into these voucher programs because schools are not equipped to handle and provide the services they need to succeed.”

I’m sorry this arrives after close of the legislative session. But it remains valuable. Save it for the inevitable day when the voucher advocates return to the legislature to tout the success of the Succeed Scholarship and the new voucher-for-all-comers program and ask for an increase in the transfer of public money to private schools. (The Succeed Scholarship got a 10 percent spending bump this year while public education, in general, got about a 2 percent increase.)