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Many unknowns with LEARNS Act, superintendent says

Schools looking at possible enrollment as tuition vouchers phase in 2023 to 2025

Published: April 21, 2023   
Emily Terrell
Mayor Lioneld Jordan of Fayetteville reads to first- grade students in honor of Read Across America week at St. Joseph School March 3. As new tuition vouchers are phased in, Catholic schools must figure out how many new students they can accept and how to serve their needs.

Catholic schools are preparing to implement the state’s voucher program, but there are still many questions the diocesan superintendent’s office wants answers for.

“Many of our schools are very excited about the prospect of being able to help more kids in terms of what we can offer in our schools,” associate superintendent Marguerite Olberts said. “With some of them that are struggling with enrollment, this could be very helpful.”

Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders signed the LEARNS Act into law March 8. A major component of the education bill is a voucher program called Educational Freedom Accounts to be phased in over three years.

In the fall, these students can apply to get vouchers to attend a private school or homeschool:

  • Students in F-rated public schools
  • Students previously receiving Succeed Scholarships, including students with disabilities, homeless students, foster children and children with a parent with active military service.
  • Students enrolling in kindergarten for the first time

The number of students allowed will be capped at 1.5 percent of the total public school enrollment.

In the fall of 2024, these students can apply for vouchers:

  • Students in D-rated public schools
  • Children of veterans, reservists or first responders

The cap will increase to 3 percent of the public school enrollment.

According to the Arkansas Department of Education, at least one-third of public school districts received a “D” or ‘F” grade in the fall of 2022.

By fall 2025, all families will be eligible for vouchers for their children’s education, including tuition, fees, school supplies and uniforms. No cap will be enforced by the state.

The Catholic Schools Office is working with the state’s education department to get the guidelines for implementing the LEARNS Act. The main question still outstanding is what Catholic schools can charge for tuition. The state will reimburse schools 90 percent of the annual per-student public school funding rate, or $6,671, based on 2022-2023 funding. Only a few Catholic schools are charging that amount or more. Most parishes subsidize the tuition to close the gap between what the parents pay and what it costs to educate the child.

In 2022, the Catholic Schools Office said it costs an average of $6,532 to educate an elementary-age child, but the average tuition is $4,147 for a Catholic student and $5,734 for a non-Catholic child. Schools have to close the gap with fundraising and parish subsidies.

Associate superintendent Illena Dobbins said it is still not known what students will first be considered for vouchers in the fall.

“After Succeed Scholarships, is it going to be those in the F schools and then the kindergarteners or is it going to be a lottery?” Dobbins said.

Until those guidelines are written, the schools are making preparations.

“Schools have to look at what their capacity is,” Dobbins said.

“They are trying to do their homework,” Olberts said. “How many kids can we take? What is feasible in terms of keeping our school culture and climate?”

Superintendent Theresa Hall added, “Parents have to understand what our mission is. It might not be the right place for them.”

While most Catholic schools have openings, they are hesitant to add too many new teachers and classrooms.

“The fear is in the future, we get a new governor, and they decide they are going to end the program, and we have these families who got (vouchers) and then all of a sudden that is taken away from them,” Dobbins said. “By then, the hope is parents see the benefit and they would fight for that.”

Olberts said Catholic legislators told them that movement in other states is toward vouchers so they don’t think the Educational Freedom Accounts will be rescinded under future administrations. 

Some Catholic schools have trained staff to assist students with dyslexia and learning disabilities, but it is unknown how many more students they could help.
 “In a school that might have somebody already doing intervention for kids and they already have a full schedule,” Hall said, “are they going to have to hire another interventionist?”

Catholic Schools Office leaders said two other factors would determine if students can switch from public schools to Catholic schools.

“Parents who come to our schools, there are still a lot of commitments they have to make,” Olberts said. “We don’t bus. We don’t have transportation. They have to have the means to get their child to school, to get them there on time and pick them up.”

“And they have to pay for aftercare,” Hall added.

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