Wednesday, November 29, 2023

AR: Are Vouchers Rescuing Anyone?

Arkansas's Governor Sanders made it a top priority to ram through a package of Florida-style education privatization law when she took office, and the legislature obliged, with the passage of the LEARNS Act last year. It was followed by a lawsuit intended to roll back some of the law. Now the state has released a report on the ESA super-voucher that was part of the law, and the lawyer attached to the lawsuit sums it up pretty well
“This program was passed and sold to the public, and sold to legislators, as a way to help poor students trapped in failing public schools, but in fact, that’s not at all what happened,” Attorney Ali Noland said.

What does the report tell us?

The Education Freedom Accounts (because nobody wants to call vouchers "vouchers") were used by 4,785+ students at $6,672 a pop. 94 schools participated. 59% of those students were located in the Little Rock area, with another 19% in the northwest corner of the state. 

And here's the part that Noland spotted:

5% of the students who used the taxpayer-funded vouchers actually left a public school. 5%. Five percent (just making sure you know this was not one of my usual typos). All the other 95% were either first-time kindergartners or already enrolled in private school. 

What else? 38% of voucher users are in ten of the voucher-accepting schools. Of those top ten, nine are explicitly religious schools. The usual religious restrictions apply. Some examples.

Little Rock Christian Academy is the biggest school on the list, with 1,665 enrolled, of whom 324 voucher students. In its Christian Community Statement, it says:

As a religious organization, the LRCA Christian community views trustee, employee, student, parent, and family lifestyle choices and conduct to be a reflection of religious beliefs and Christian commitment. LRCA will exercise its prerogative as a religious organization to neither commence nor continue an appointment, employment, admission, enrollment, or other category of LRCA Christian community relationship if it is believed by LRCA that so doing will cause confusion about, conflict with, or compromise of the LRCA Christian community’s mission to provide a distinctly Christian education from a Christ-centered worldview.

At the Central Arkansas Christian School, the secondary school application includes a survey that asks if the student has ever been in trouble with the law, has Attention Deficit Disorder "or any other learning issues, or if they are or have been married or pregnant. Shiloh Christian School promises instruction by "born-again Christian teachers in an environment where God and His Word are the highest authority."

That's just the top three participants. Also worth noting that while the first two are located in Little Rock, which is almost 50% Black, the depicted students are almost entirely white. Of the 94 participating schools, 65 are clearly religious schools (one Islamic, the rest Christian). Unsurprising, as Arkansas's Department of Education has been actively promoting private Christian schools

While service providers can also participate, it appears that so far that group0 is just three uniform supply companies and Staples. Money from the voucher system has been spent almost entirely on tuition, with a tiny amount for uniforms and "required academic expenses." Out of the $7,077,597 handed out in the first quart, $176,853 went to ClassWallet for managing the money. Arkansas set up an ESA style voucher that allows for all manner of spending, but so far it's behaving like a traditional voucher that is used for tuition.

So is this voucher set-up rescuing poor students from failing schools? Clearly not. But it is throwing a whole bunch of money at private religious schools and affluent families. And advocates are anticipating they'll be throwing more and more in the years ahead. 

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