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More than 80 schools apply for vouchers | #schoolsaftey

More than 80 of Arkansas’ private and parochial schools have applied to date to participate in the state’s new Educational Freedom Account Program, enabling eligible students to use taxpayer money to meet at least part of their tuition and other school costs in the 2023-24 school year.

The school and student application period remains open at least until Tuesday.

[DOCUMENT: Read the list of private, parochial schools » arkansasonline.com/730vouchers/]

Some of the private schools that have applied to the state and are approved to be able to accept the publicly funded vouchers — about $6,672 per student this new school year — are Ozark Catholic Academy in Tontitown, Victory Christian School in Camden, Maranatha Baptist Christian School in El Dorado, The Academy of TLC in Jonesboro, Christ Academy in Newport, Prism North America headquartered in Fayetteville and Shiloh Christian Schools in Springdale and Rogers.

Others on the long list of approved schools include Little Rock’s Pulaski Academy, Episcopal Collegiate School, Little Rock Christian Academy, Little Rock Catholic High, Mount St. Mary Academy and Baptist Preparatory School, to name a few.

Rachel Deems, Pulaski Academy’s interim head of school, said in an email Friday that Educational Freedom Accounts can be a benefit to the school’s current and future families. She said she saw the benefit of state aid to qualified private school families in her previous roles as head of independent schools in Georgia and in South Carolina.

“For any family, including current PA families with an eligible student, these funds can make a difference in being able to afford a school like Pulaski Academy, a school committed to excellence and high achievement in academics, fine arts, and athletics,” Deems said.

Deems also said that the Pulaski Academy’s Educational Freedom Account application was submitted to the state only after considering “any potential impacts on the school’s ability to maintain its independence for mission of school, admissions criteria, determination of enrollment, class size, curriculum, assessments and standardized testing — all of which are important to maintaining our high standards as a leader in independent school education.”

The new Educational Freedom Accounts are authorized by the multi-part Arkansas LEARNS Act or Act 237 of 2023 that was championed by Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders to revamp prekindergarten-through-12th grade education.

LEARNS stands for literacy, empowerment, accountability, readiness, networking and safety.

The new law and emergency rules for carrying out the law in the first year spell out the requirements for private schools and for students to use the state-funded accounts for tuition and other school costs.

The schools, for example, must provide assurances that they are accredited or are seeking accreditation from an accrediting agency.

They must identify a nationally standardized test that they will give to their voucher-supported students and commit to reporting the results to the state every June.

The schools must sign assurances that they have been in operation for at least a year, are financially sound, do not discriminate, and employ teachers who have a bachelor’s degree or have equivalent experience.

“A participating school or service provider shall not be required to alter its creed, practices, admissions policy, or curriculum to receive approval from the Department or to accept payments from an EFA,” the emergency rules state.

The students in this first year of the vouchers are limited to those who will be entering kindergarten, attended a state F-graded school last year, have a disability that requires an Individualized Education Program, are children of active military personnel or have experienced homelessness or foster care. The student eligibility criteria expand in 2024-25 and all students will be eligible in 2025-26.


While Pulaski Academy is a nonsectarian school, a large number of the private and parochial schools that are choosing to accept the state-funded vouchers are ministries of churches and religious faiths.

Arkansas Christian Academy, an approved school in Bryant, for example, states on its website: “Our goals are to support the home and to provide excellent facilities, equipment, and Godly instructors for the development of Christian character in the lives of the students entrusted to our care. … We endeavor to provide opportunities that will equip students to become strong Christian leaders who will serve the Lord in their vocation.”

Similarly, Shiloh Christian Schools’ website states its mission is “to develop Godly leaders who engage their culture and change it.”

The Huda Academy in Little Rock, also an approved applicant school, states on its website that it “was established in 2000 to promote education and create an environment based on Islamic principles of character, courage and compassion.”

“The Huda Academy boasts one of the strongest Qira’ah (Qur’an recitation) programs in the nation with the kids starting to read from the Qur’an as early as first grade,” states the website, also noting: “Girls are required to wear the hijab during Quran/Islamic Studies classes and during salat. … Wearing a kufis is optional for boys.”

Taxpayer funding for private and parochial school tuition is not entirely new in Arkansas.

The preexisting Succeed Scholarship Program allowed public money to be used for private school tuition primarily for students with special needs. Act 237 absorbs and greatly expands the voucher system.

This school year, 1.5% of the public school enrollment of this past year can obtain vouchers. That amounts to almost 7,000 students and a funding cap of about $46 million, state leaders have said. The percentage of students who can obtain an Educational Freedom Account will be expanded to 3% of the total public school enrollment in the 2024-25 school year and will be unlimited in 2025-26 and beyond.

As of this past week, at least 4,981 students had opened applications for the vouchers of $6,672 to be used this school year. The student number includes approved student applications, those in review, and those in the draft process, Division of Elementary and Secondary Education spokesperson Kimberly Mundell said.

The department may withhold up to 5% of the funds allocated to each account for the purpose of administering the accounts.

The state has set an Aug. 1 deadline for student applications, but applications will still be taken later and approved if funding is available.

Acquiring a voucher does not necessarily mean that student tuition and related costs will be fully covered. That will depend on the school.


According to tuition information provided on the private school applications, some school tuition costs will be about equal to the amount of the state-funded voucher, while other schools have higher tuition rates — resulting in the families having to pay a portion of the school costs. The schools often have varied tuition rates for families with more than one child enrolled in a school or if a family is a member of a church affiliated with the school.

Pulaski Academy lists its tuition for the coming year as ranging from $13,900 for kindergarten to $17,940 for 12th grade.

Both Arkansas Christian Academy and the Huda Academy are raising their tuition and fees in the 2023-24 school year — as are many of the other state-approved private and parochial schools — according to their applications to the state.

Arkansas Christian is charging $8,000 for grades kindergarten through five for this new school year and $8,300 for grades nine through 12. Those rates are up from $4,950 for grades kindergarten through five, $5,050 for grades six through eight, and $5,260 for grades nine through 12 last year. The school also included in its application to the state the costs to the families for uniforms, $300 to $500; athletics, $100 per sport; and others.

The Huda Academy’s tuition was $5,500 this past year and will go to $5,770 for the new school year. On top of that there are fees that include registration, $50; books, $450 per grade; art, $40; building fee, $200; technology, $150; and security guard fee, $35 per month.


Leaders of several of the state’s private and parochial schools — including Arkansas Christian Academy and the Huda Academy — did not respond to email and phone messages for comments about their applications for the the Educational Freedom Accounts, or they said it was too soon to discuss the new voucher program.

“Because it is still so early in the process, we do not have a comment on our participation,” Justin Smith, head of school/president of Little Rock Christian Academy, said in an email last week. “At this point, the rules and regulations are not finalized and there’s much to learn in year one.”

Deems of Pulaski Academy agreed, particularly with regard to the effects on school enrollment.

“I think we will have a better feel for that following the first year of the EFA program,” she said. “Pulaski Academy will maintain its admissions criteria and commitment to teacher:student ratio so any potential growth would be strategically planned. Currently, we have a number of grade levels that are at capacity with wait pools.

“Our kindergarten sections are at capacity and there is a wait pool for 2023-2024. This was the case prior to our participation in EFA,” Deems also said.

Jamie Griffin, head of school for Episcopal Collegiate School, said the Little Rock institution serves “a diverse community representing over 37 zip codes” and that “members of our constituency meet the eligibility criteria of this program.”

The school is choosing to participate in the Educational Freedom Accounts authorized by the LEARNS Act, he said, “to provide current and prospective families an additional avenue of opportunity when making important decisions regarding their children’s education.”

Participating in the voucher system will not affect Episcopal Collegiate School’s admissions process, Griffin also said.

Theresa Hall, superintendent of schools for the Diocese of Little Rock that covers almost all Catholic schools in the state, said getting the word out about the availability of state tuition funds to parents has taken a lot of effort. Many parents didn’t know about the funds. Diocese schools have sent letters out to upcoming kindergarteners to raise that awareness.

“I think there’s still so much of not knowing,” Hall said. “Once this really opens up and we see how the first nine weeks goes, we’ll know more.”

One of the concerns some Catholic schools have had about applying to receive the money was the potential impact on planned courses and on who would have to be admitted to the school.

“One principal, her question was, ‘You know, we’re a Catholic school and we teach our religion classes, are we still going to be able to teach our religion classes?'” Hall said. “Also, ‘Do we have to accept every person that applies? Because sometimes we may not be able to meet the needs of a certain student. We don’t have the means for extra support sometimes, that might be needed for a child that might have some special needs.'”

Jamie Groat, director of communications and marketing for Mount St. Mary Academy, a Catholic school, said the primary reason the school applied to receive the funding was because several of their students were currently receiving Succeed Scholarships, which are now folded into the freedom account program by the LEARNS Act.

Groat said the school doesn’t anticipate having any new students using the funds this school year.

“We already have our class [for this school year],” Groat said. “But, I mean, we definitely consider ourselves an Arkansas Department of Education LEARNS partner school, and we’ll be participating in that as the details continue to emerge for private schools.”

Laurie Lee, the chair of the board of the Reform Alliance, which advocates for school choice for students to meet individual learning needs, said the alliance has fielded “thousands” of calls from parents regarding the state’s newly created Educational Freedom Accounts.

“We’ve had thousands of phone calls and emails from families since February that have applied for [Educational Freedom Account money],” Lee said. “We sent out an email to everybody we had on an email list that was several thousand people the day applications opened, and the open rate was crazy.”

While the implementation of the publicly funded accounts is exciting for many parents looking to place their child in private school, Lee said that there will be some lag time in private schools’ meeting demands from parents and students for seats.

“It’s going to take time for the private school sector to catch up,” she said, “because we’ve not had any ability for low-income kids in depressed areas to have a private school. Why would a private school go in if [people in those communities] can’t pay for it?”

Hall said the Catholic diocese has learned enough about the new state law and the vouchers that it is considering the possible reopening of a previously closed elementary school in Lake Village in southeast Arkansas. Feasibility studies are being done. However, she said, there are currently no discussions to expand or build any new schools.

More information on student and school participation in the Educational Freedom Accounts is available here: https://dese.ade.arkansas.gov/Offices/office-of-school-choice-and-parent-empowerment/education-freedom-accounts.

The Educational Freedom Accounts are being operated under emergency rules approved by the Arkansas Board of Education earlier this month. More permanent rules have been drafted and will be the subject of public hearings to be held at 9 a.m. and 5:30 p.m. Aug. 25, in the auditorium of the Arch Ford Education Building, 4 Capitol Mall, Little Rock.

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