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Governor's school bill could help, hurt Catholic schools

Vouchers could boost Catholic school enrollment, but teacher pay raise may be untenable

Published: February 17, 2023   
Katie Kratzberg
Teacher Vicki Sharum and her second-grade class at Christ the King School in Fort Smith celebrate Catholic Schools Week Feb. 3.

When Arkansas’ Catholic legislators met with diocesan leaders during the current legislative session, they said it’s not a matter of if, but when, Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders’ education plan will be passed. 

It could have potential positive and negative effects on Arkansas’ Catholic schools, Theresa Hall, superintendent for Catholic schools, said.

On Feb. 8, Sanders outlined her ideas, including increasing teacher pay and offering vouchers to every student to attend private or homeschool. While the bill is focused on the state’s public schools and students, administrators in the diocese’s Office of Catholic Schools said the legislation could impact its schools.

“We don’t have all the information yet, but we are watching this bill,” Hall said.

“Right now, because we really don't know what it says, we really don’t have all the answers,” Hall said. “Until we get the final bill to see how all that's written we're telling our principals to be true to our mission and make sure that you can still meet the needs of all the kids that you have.”

In the state Capitol press conference, Sanders said her proposal, dubbed Arkansas LEARNS, is focused on literacy, empowering parents, accountability for teachers, career readiness for students, high-speed internet access and improved security at schools. 

The two highest-profile aspects of the bill, which has yet to be released in its entirety, would increase first-year public teacher pay $14,000 from $36,000 to $50,000 a year starting next school year, provide salary increases for all teachers and create "Education Freedom Accounts," that would give parents 90 percent of the amount public schools are funded on per student. 

Arkansas’ public schools currently receive $7,413 per student. If vouchers were available now, parents could apply $6,671.70 toward private school tuition.

The voucher program would be phased in over three years, with students at “F”-rated schools eligible first.

Students eligible for the state’s Succeed scholarships  —  children of active duty military, low-income students, those in foster care and with special needs  — would also be part of the voucher program. Students at “D”-rated schools would be added in year two. In year three, all students could receive a voucher to attend a private school.

Catholic school officials said the voucher program would be beneficial as it would likely increase enrollment and add money to their schools’ budgets.

“This would help children who are Catholics who are going to public schools,” Hall said. “We hope that this will give them the opportunity to come into our schools.”

Associate superintendent Ileana Dobbins said the bill may include vouchers for kindergarteners. 

“That would be great,” she said. “We’ve had two years of low numbers in kindergarten, so that would mean we could get more students in at the beginning of their academic career and keep them in Catholic schools through high school.”

One of Sanders' goals calls for all Arkansas students to be at grade-level performance by third grade.

“The younger that we get those students the more likely we are to keep them on grade level,” Hall said.

Hall and Dobbins said there were two bills filed but pulled that would have had a negative impact. One would have required private schools to provide transportation within a 35-mile radius of their campus. Another would have required schools to accept any student using a voucher to pay for school.

“We’re glad that those were shot down,” Hall said. “The first was cost-prohibitive. With the second, we want to make sure we still can have that application process. As the bill was written, if there's a voucher system you have to take any student that applies. That's not going to work for us.”

“We're Catholic schools, and we want to keep our Catholic education. That's very important to us,” Dobbins said.

Hall said Catholic schools will have a tough time competing with the proposed increase in first-year teacher pay to $50,000.

“That can really hurt us because it's not where our recommended salary scale is,” she said. 

Some Catholic schools in the state can currently afford to pay teachers about 80 percent of what public school teachers earn but not all have that ability, she said.

Each school establishes teacher salaries, based on their enrollment, as part of its annual budget, Dobbins said. 

“It’s not coming from the school system. There are schools that are not on our salary scale as a result. If we have more students, it would give us more money to be able to pay for teachers,” she said. “But this is a substantial increase. We had a principal last week say she already had a teacher come to her and say she was going to apply to their local public school for next year because of the money. So, as far as recruiting and retaining teachers, that could affect us.”

“Right now, because we really don't know what it says, we really don’t have all the answers,” Hall said. “Until we get the final bill to see how all that's written we're telling our principals to be true to our mission and make sure that you can still meet the needs of all the kids that you have.”

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