Under a bill that cleared the Senate Education Committee Tuesday on a voice vote, all private schools would be given public funds to take special needs kids if parents so choose, even if they haven’t achieved what’s called “accreditation.”
The Arkansas Department of Education says it can take four years to get that status. State Sen. Linda Chesterfield (D- Little Rock) says accreditation is evidence that the schools are doing a good job.
“I don’t think you do it by allowing kids to be put some place for four years that’s not accredited and may never be accredited.”
Katie Clifford is the Executive Director of The Reform Alliance. It’s a new Walton Family Foundation-backed group that serves as a go-between the Arkansas Department of Education and the 25 participating schools, handling the money and managing the program, though Arkansas does not have a state “Blaine Amendment,” explicitly prohibiting religious entities from taking public money.
These Succeed Scholarships, as the vouchers are named, pay for public school kids with disabilities or individualized education programs (or both) to meet private school tuition and expenses.
Clifford said five schools were turned down this year because they lack accreditation: Access Academies in Little Rock and Riverdale, Compass Academy in Conway, Equip K-12 Academy in Jonesboro, and Chenal Valley Montessori School.
“Were comfortable with the fact that they’re in the process of accreditation. They just haven’t finalized,” said Clifford.
That’s partly because special education vouchers are new to the state though so far they’re only given to accredited schools approved by a national accreditation group. Clifford says parents can judge if a school is good.
“We trust the parents to make that decision.”
Chesterfield told the committee she worries that without high standards in the program — the kind accreditation speaks to — quality will suffer.
“Choice to me is not better and mediocre,” she said. “It’s better and best.”
Clifford said that private schools taking voucher money would eventually have to get accredited.
During the Senate Education Committee hearing, Sen. Alan Clark (R-Garland County) got into a back and forth with Chesterfield, though the two remained respectful. It's time for the state to stop regulating educational choice, he argued.
“Please leave me alone. Please let me take care of my kids. Please let me do the right thing,” he said. “And then there are others who come back with the nanny state and say, ‘No, you can’t trust the parents to do the right thing. And especially the parents of disabled kids because, who knows what they may do.’”
The bill now heads to the full house and senate for approval. Other legislation has been filed to extend vouchers to any foster kids, regardless of their needs.
A second bill would expand the program to give public money to kids who’ve never attended public school.
This story is produced by Arkansas Public Media, a statewide journalism collaboration among public media organizations. Arkansas Public Media reporting is funded in part through a grant from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, with the support of partner stations KUAR, KUAF, KASU and KTXK and from members of the public. You can learn more and support Arkansas Public Media’s reporting at arkansaspublicmedia.org. Arkansas Public Media is Natural State News with Context.