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Report: Arkansas voucher program gives millions of public dollars to private Christian schools
The program is working exactly as Republicans intended
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In the first few months of Arkansas’ voucher program, a new document reveals, thousands of students have spent millions of taxpayer dollars to attend mostly religious private schools. And many of those students were already in private schools to begin with, making their use of taxpayer dollars a drain on the minimal resources currently available to public schools throughout the state.
That’s the takeaway from the first annual Education Freedom Account report given to the state legislature.
The Republican-led plan to funnel money to private religious schools was always hyped as a way to give parents “choice”… but as a report by the Arkansas Advocate makes clear, the critics were right all along: This is nothing more than a giveaway to Christian schools.
“Arkansas’ Education Freedom Account program has only been around for a few months and already, it’s having a positive impact for kids in the state,” said Alexa Henning, Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders’ communications director. “Nearly 5,000 students at almost 100 schools have enrolled in the program, offering families across Arkansas the chance to choose the school that best suits their individual needs and helping every student have access to a quality education.”
Arkansas Education Association President April Reisma, a special education teacher in the Pulaski County Special School District, said the report should be “deeply disturbing to the tax-paying residents of Arkansas.”
“The department cloaks this funding as ‘School Choice’ and ‘Parental Empowerment,’” Reisma said. “To be clear, Arkansas already has school choice. Parents already have the power to choose the school that is best for their child. The guiding principles for the disbursement of these funds leave too many questions than answers. Wouldn’t it be more prudent to use these public funds to expand educational opportunity, high quality school options, use data to inform rulemaking, and ensure strong fiscal stewardship of public funds by investing in our current public schools with that public funding?”
If the idea of “school choice” is theoretically intended to help students at underperforming public schools attend institutions that give them a better shot, even if they’re private schools, it’s clear that the numbers tell a different story.
95% of the students in the program previously attended a private school or are beginning their formal education in one as kindergartners. In the first case, that means their parents (or the schools) were already paying for their education before the EFA program went into effect. And of the 24 schools that enroll the most EFA participants, 21 of them are religiously affiliated. (I’ve highlighted them in the chart below.)
The bottom line is that this program is just a massive taxpayer-funded gift to families whose kids were already attending (or planning to attend) private religious schools. As of this writing, $7.1 million has already been spent on this program. By the end of the school year, an estimated $32.5 million will be spent on the program.
This year, the EFA program is only open to first-time kindergartners, students at failing schools, students with disabilities, students experiencing homelessness, and a few other groups. That opening for first-time kindergartners basically means there are now about 1,500 students going to mostly private religious schools at taxpayer expense.
Within the next couple of years, though, the program will expand to everyone else who wants to participate. That means even more money will be given to families that can already afford private schools but want to help Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders and her Republican allies destroy public education, intentionally or not. It’s the same story in every place that passes these kinds of voucher programs. Advocates continuously lie about “school choice”—the only kind of choice they ever support—because they know it’s ultimately a huge benefit for Christian schools.
(A previous version of the program only benefitted students with disabilities, foster children, and military families, which would be much more defensible. This one is much, much broader. It’s also part of the controversial LEARNS Act which has a host of other problems separate from all this.)
As Democratic State House candidate David McAvoy pointed out, this program will soon “become an expensive subsidy for wealthier families at the expense of everyone else.”
It should go without saying that private religious schools, by definition, indoctrinate children in faith, sometimes teaching blatant lies about science and history in the name of Jesus. Those schools are not necessarily held accountable for students’ education (outside of promising to give EFA students a standardized test), and there’s far less oversight of what they do. Hell, the schools don’t even have to be accredited yet.
Plus, while the state must be transparent about where the funds are going—hence this new report—the schools receiving the funding don’t have to publicly document how they’re spending the money. It’s too early to gauge how Arkansas voucher recipients do academically compared to their public school counterparts, which will be worth keeping an eye on in years to come.
Vouchers have always been a gift for families that want to send their kids to private Christian schools, and this latest version of the program is just more proof that Republicans are happy to take vital funding out of public schools if they can regift it to a bunch of wealthier religious families.
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