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Education board OKs rules for school safety, Educational Freedom Account voucher payments | #schoolsaftey


The Arkansas Board of Education on Friday approved a final set of rules for school safety, clearing the way for school systems to be reimbursed by the state for their school safety-related expenses.

At the same meeting, the Education Board:

Approved emergency rules — good for 120 days — on a process for distributing more than $30 million in state aid this school year for student tuition and related costs at private schools.

Accepted the recommendation of the Charter Authorizing Panel to establish two new open-enrollment charter schools to open in the 2024-25 school year.

The board’s newly approved rules for school safety and Educational Freedom Account voucher payments won’t be final until they are reviewed by the Arkansas Legislative Council.

Education Board member Kathy Rollins of Springdale asked whether it was necessary for the board to immediately approve the rules because board members had only received public comments on the rules earlier Friday and had no time to review the comments.

Jason Weatherly, safe schools coordinator for the Arkansas Division of Elementary and Secondary Education, said school districts were waiting on the final rules so they can be reimbursed for safety expenses incurred in July, August and September this year. Districts were reimbursed $9.3 million for expenditures in May and June, he said. Distribution of the state funds was then paused pending the approval of the safety rules.

The final rules for governing school safety call for public schools to conduct a comprehensive school safety assessment at least once every three years in collaboration with local law enforcement, fire and emergency management officials. The first assessment must be done by next Aug. 1.

Records reflecting the school safety assessment can’t be made available for public viewing, according to provisions in the rules. School board discussions on the results of the safety assessment must be done in an executive session that is closed to the public, the rules say.

The rules also require, at a minimum, annual lockdown drills in response to possible threats on campuses. Tornado drills shall be held three times a year, with the first being done by Oct. 15 of a school year. Fire drills must be monthly. Exterior doors must be closed and locked during school hours except at transition times. However, at no time may a person be prevented from leaving a building.

The rules also address training requirements for school resource officers and school leaders. Those officers who fail to complete training requirements will be unable to serve in the role until the training is completed.

Additionally the rules call for communication systems, and they set reporting requirements on threats.

VOUCHERS

The board approved emergency rules that establish a process for distributing state funding to the private and parochial schools that are participating in the new Educational Freedom Account voucher program.

The emergency rules will be used until a nearly identical set of draft permanent rules are put out for public review and possibly revised.

Ultimately, rules on the payment process will be incorporated into still pending draft rules for carrying out the entire Educational Freedom Account program.

The voucher program is part of the Arkansas LEARNS Act, or Act 237 of 2023, that Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders introduced as a way to remake public education in the state.

The Educational Freedom Accounts will provide up to $6,672 or $7,413 in state funding for private school costs this year.

Students eligible for the higher dollar amount are those who participated last school year in a smaller, publicly funded voucher system primarily for students with special education needs. That now-defunct Succeed Scholarship Program has been absorbed by the Educational Freedom Accounts program that is being phased in over three years.

The Arkansas Elementary and Secondary Education Division in a Sept. 30 report to lawmakers projected the cost of the accounts to be $32.5 million for this school year.

The new emergency rules state: “The department shall make four equal payments in quarterly installments from the participating student’s educational freedom account to the participating school or service provider.”

The rules direct that a third-party payment organization set up accounts for the students who have been approved for the program.

The rules also call for families to verify their expenses and submit requests for funding to the third-party vendor ClassWallet.

The third-party payment organization will distribute the state payment to the private schools or service providers, following review and approval of the expense requests by the state Education Department.

As of Sept. 20, a total of 4,795 students were using the new Educational Freedom Accounts to offset their tuition and other costs at 94 private and parochial schools approved to accept the state-funded vouchers. Additional students were in different stages of applying, and some had been disapproved.

Student eligibility criteria expand for next year, and in 2025-2026 any student can apply for the vouchers.

School safety grants are being provided by the state to school districts to help the districts carry out the recommendations of the Arkansas School Safety Commission and the LEARNS Act.

CHARTER SCHOOLS

The Education Board on Friday approved without discussion two new open-enrollment charter schools: Pinecrest Preparatory Academy in Fayetteville and the Civica Career and Collegiate Academy in Bentonville.

Plans for both schools had been reviewed and recommended to the state Education Board by the state’s Charter Authorizing Panel.

The Pinecrest academy is being planned for as many as 2,000 kindergarten through 12th-graders by 2028-2029. The Arkansas school would be part of a network of 26 charters schools serving 18,000 students in Florida, Nevada and Idaho.

The sponsoring organization is Pinecrest Academy Arkansas, and Carlos Alvarez is the primary contact for the school.

The Civica Career and Collegiate Academy will serve up to 2,550 in kindergarten through 12th-grades.

School plans call for a college preparatory program with an emphasis on preparing for careers. Potential career focuses include health science, business and marketing, economics and international studies, computer sciences and early childhood educators.

The proposed Arkansas charter campus would have sister campuses in Hialeah, Fla., Milliken, Colo., and Las Vegas.

The sponsoring entity is Civica Educational Foundation Inc., and Alvarez is again the contact.



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