The Arkansas Department of Education just confirmed vouchers are as bad for students as experts and educators warned.
The ADE’s newly released Education Freedom Account Annual Report details the program’s impact since its beginning a few months ago. If this start is an indicator of what’s to come, the primary beneficiaries of the EFA program will be wealthy Arkansans – specifically, those already wealthy enough to send their children to private school.
Ninety-five percent of the 4,795 students accessing EFAs this year were enrolled in private school last year. That means a whopping 240 students got the supposedly life-changing experience of transferring from public school to private school via a LEARNS voucher.
Whether private school was new or old news for EFA students, the money to educate them overwhelmingly went to religious institutions.
Part of the ADE’s report lists the 94 participating schools from highest EFA enrollment to lowest. The first page of the list includes 24 schools, 22 of which are religiously affiliated. The school receiving the most of our tax dollars through EFAs is, by far, Little Rock Christian Academy with 324 EFA students. Coming in second is Central Arkansas Christian, with 224 EFA students. Third place goes to Shiloh Christian School with 209 EFA students. Each EFA student gives these schools about $6,600 per year.
These top three schools using public money for private, religious education are taking 15.7% of the students (and the public dollars to educate them) that the EFA program is putting out this year. The 757 students using tax dollars to attend these three private Christian schools are costing the state $4,996,200 this school year.
You read that right. For the 2023-2024 school year, nearly $5,000,000 is going to three private Christian schools taking in over 15% of the EFA participants. The vast majority of these students were already in private school last year.
But which families are using public dollars to fund their child’s religious education? It’s mostly those who can afford the difference between the EFA coverage and the private school tuition.
Little Rock Christian Academy charges $11,895 annually for Kindergarten through 3rd grade students. After EFAs are applied, that leaves a family with $5,295 to make up.
Central Arkansas Christian Academy charges $9,861 annually for 1st through 5th grade. With the EFA subsidizing this amount, $3,261 is left to be paid by the family.
Shiloh Christian School charges $9,800 annually for Kindergarten through 5th grade. That’s $3,200 remaining for families to make up each year.
These numbers speak for themselves. In the vast majority of cases, the LEARNS EFA program subsidizes private Christian education for families who could already afford the tuition.
The report goes on to say that roughly $32.5 million dollars will be disbursed by the end of the year. Barely 1% of Arkansas’ 476,579 students are accessing EFAs in the 2023-2024 school year. Governor Sanders promised that by the 2025-2026 school year, all students would be eligible to apply with priority given to certain students if funding is available. If 100% of Arkansas students were to use EFAs at $6,600 per student, the cost for the program would be over 3 billion dollars.
We hope no one is holding their breath until that happens, because it’s highly unlikely.
Public schools won’t feel the impact of EFAs this year because, as we just discussed, relatively few current EFA students previously attended public school. Also, the funding formula for public schools is calculated using a one-year delay.
It would always have been better to invest in public schools, raise teacher and classified staff pay, and create a more equitable system of funding throughout the state. This is the way for a child’s zip code to cease to be a determinant to their educational outcomes. Indeed, improving public education is the only way to meet every child’s needs in a place like Arkansas, where our rural towns experience their schools as the lifeblood of their communities.
Every child in Arkansas deserves access to quality education. Overhauling the system in a way that funnels public dollars into private schools for the benefit of wealthy families is the last thing we need. Sadly, this is only the awful beginning of what’s to come from the LEARNS scheme.