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Wow, it’s almost as if privatizing public education leads to bad outcomes for less than ideal students (at least from the perspective of the charter industry).

The Arkansas state legislature’s first foray into education vouchers was in 2015, when it created the state-funded Succeed Scholarship for children with disabilities. Launched the following year, the program currently gives parents nearly $7,000 per year to help send an eligible child to a private school. Not a single legislator voted against the bill, a rare achievement for school choice legislation in a state where public schools have historically gotten bipartisan support.

In the program’s first year, it funded just 23 students. Today, it’s assisting 479 students and costing the state $3.3 million a year, according to the Arkansas Department of Education (ADE). Eligibility has been expanded to include some children in the foster care system. The scholarships are administered by ADE and the Reform Alliance, a nonprofit group funded in part by the Walton Family Foundation, a lead backer of school choice reforms in Arkansas.

But parents and education advocates are questioning how accountable the program is to the state and whether it adequately serves students with complex needs. They also point to the program’s lack of accessibility for families in poverty, the geographic concentration of recipients, and the requirement that participating parents or guardians temporarily sign away their child’s right to a “free and appropriate” public education under the federal Individuals With Disabilities Education Act, meaning they have little legal recourse if a private school fails their student. In addition, private schools do not have to be accredited to take Succeed Scholarship vouchers — they just need to show they’re on the path to accreditation.

“We’re doing a disservice to families across the state by not being open and honest about the services they may or may not get,” said Tom Masseau, the executive director of Disability Rights Arkansas.

Questions about the Succeed Scholarship loom as the Arkansas state legislature is expanding school choice programs. This session, lawmakers passed a $2 million bill that provides a full tax credit to individuals and corporations who donate to a fund that will pay private school tuition for students in families with incomes up to 200% of the federal poverty line. The governor is expected to sign the bill, which was contentious from the start — even within the legislature’s Republican supermajority. Critics refer to it as essentially another voucher bill. 

“I’ve watched this state privatize public education every piece of the way,” state Rep. David Tollett (R), superintendent for the Barton-Lexa School District in Phillips County, said in the House floor debate prior to the vote. State Rep. Gary Deffenbaugh (R), a retired educator, asked, “The question is, who are private schools accountable to? Who has oversight over them?”

Somewhat interesting that it is Republicans questioning this arrangement, though evidently Arkansas does have some history of bipartisan support for public education, at least for whites.

What does this look like on the ground?

“While making the decision to place my child at the Hannah School I thought the school had to meet these qualifications,” said Sonia Fonticiella, an attorney whose elementary-age child received the Succeed Scholarship to attend the Hannah School. “I remember looking at the paperwork and believing that if the state certified this school to educate children with this specific learning difference, it had to be legitimate. I believed the state standards set out meant the state also had a vetting process and a check and balance process to ensure state funds were being put to good use.”

Problems at the school became apparent early last fall when at least eight parents emailed ADE to say they planned to withdraw their children and transfer them to other schools, though several eventually changed their minds and were allowed to switch their Succeed Scholarship back to the Hannah School.

Around the same time, ADE received emails from several parents alleging that the school was violating the rules governing the scholarship by failing to hire only teachers with bachelor’s degrees or higher, not employing a licensed special education teacher, not being “academically accountable” to parents and guardians — a requirement for Succeed Scholarship eligibility —  and not administering a nationally recognized norms-referenced test or providing parents or guardians with portfolios and reports of their students’ progress. According to an internal document reviewed by Facing South, at one point last year the Hannah School employed six teachers with a bachelor’s degree or higher, five “teaching staff” with no bachelor’s degree, one teaching assistant with no bachelor’s degree, and two for whom education levels were unspecified.

School leadership appeared to acknowledge the shortcomings in a video posted to the school’s website; it has since been removed but Facing South obtained a copy. “We were not in compliance with the policies set forth by the Department of Education” for receiving the scholarship, school co-founder and then-board member Shawnda Majors said in the video, adding that ADE “have been giving us some grace.”

Privatized education looks like the rest of the privatized world–a gigantic opportunity for grift, concentrating resources at the top, and cutting corners. These schools should be banned entirely.

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