As Arkansas LEARNS works its way through the state legislature, with its emphasis, among other things, on what’s been dubbed “Education Freedom Accounts,” the first hearing on the bill was Wednesday, where it passed on a voice vote.
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It would provide roughly $7,000 per student to parents to be used to pay for private schools, as well as cover costs associated with homeschooling.
That money, as of now, comes with little to no restriction, so in addition to tuition, it could be used to pay for school uniforms or technology like computers.
The cost to the state would be immense. The fiscal impact statement generated by the state’s Department of Education estimates the cost of the program would range from $46.7 million to $97.5 million. As of now, that mandate is unfunded.
The entirety of Arkansas LEARNS is estimated to cost $297.5 million in year one, including $150 million in new money. Year 2 costs jump to $343.3 million and to $250 million in new money.
The largest single item is a teacher salary increase that would be $180 million in each year.
The education accounts portion is the second largest item in the bill.
Given the Republican majority, Arkansas LEARNS is almost a certainty to pass.
And it would be a profound culture change for Arkansas, as the state moves its emphasis from public school education, as mandated by the state constitution, to private, which would be partially funded by the public, along with publicly funded charter schools.
There are currently 99 private school campuses, and 49 total private school systems, in the state and 22 open-enrollment public charters, but most of those operate multiple campuses. An example of that would be the Academics Plus system that has campuses in Maumelle, North Little Rock and Scott.
The 61 total charter school campuses across the state have about 40,000 students enrolled. Private school enrollment is roughly 20,000 students.
Arkansas currently has 259 public school districts with 1,056 campuses and 476,579 students, per the Department of Education.
There are two organizations that serve the vast majority of the state’s private schools.
The largest is the Arkansas Nonpublic School Accrediting Association with 95 of the 99 schools.
Of the 95 member schools, 47 are accredited elementary schools and 27 are accredited secondary schools.
They also have 14 associate elementary schools and seven associated secondary schools.
Most of those private schools, as is the case with the charter schools, are in greater central Arkansas, the most densely populated portion of the state. In a 50-mile radius of Little Rock are roughly one million people, or a third of the state’s population.
That area stretches from Searcy to the north, Morrilton to the west, Carlisle to the east, Pine Bluff to the southeast and Hot Springs to the southwest. Of the 48 private school systems, 25 serve that area.
The other private school organization is the Midsouth Association of Independent Schools, formerly known as the Mississippi Private School Association, that has campuses in Arkansas, Mississippi, Louisiana and Tennessee.
The four campuses in Arkansas are:
DeSoto School, West Helena
Lee Academy, Marianna
Marvell Academy, Marvell
West Memphis Christian School, West Memphis
West Memphis Christian is also a member of the Arkansas Nonpublic School Accrediting Association.
The Catholic Diocese of Little Rock also lists St. Paul School in Pocahontas that serves PreK3 through the sixth grade for a total of 26 Catholic schools in the state.
Enrollment figures for three of the MSAIS schools aren’t publicly available. West Memphis Christian has a high school enrollment of 99. The other three high schools have enough students to field high school football teams.
The member schools in Mississippi serve almost every part of that state and were started by the White Citizens' Councils that began after schools were integrated following the Brown v. Board decision by the Supreme Court in 1954.
The White Citizens' Councils have their roots in the Ku Klux Klan.
Simply put, few Black children attend those schools, but in Arkansas, the white parents who send their children there would also be getting these state funds.
As for the other private schools in Arkansas, most are parochial and affiliated with a local church or diocese.
There are 23 Catholic school systems, eight schools affiliated with Baptist churches and three schools that are Church of Christ among the total of 49 schools.
Many have deep historical roots in Arkansas.
Mount St. Mary in Little Rock was founded in 1851, while the newest private school is Ozark Catholic Academy in Tontitown and Springdale and was founded in 2018.
The reality is, with Arkansas LEARNS the number of private schools is going to increase, as will the number of charter schools, and so will the numbers of students being home-schooled.
Roughly 12 percent of Arkansas students fall into the private and charter categories, but the clear intention is to get that number up by the end of this decade.
Some numbers have been floated, with those students doubling and eventually getting to a third, or more, of all students in privates and charters by 2030. That would mean, roughly, 120,000 to 180,000 students, and that would be a profound shift from the current number of approximately 60,000.
It would also mean more of a Mississippi model, with every town or county getting a private school. Some churches that may have previously hesitated due to cost now would have a guaranteed funding source, with a K-12 student being worth over $90,000 in taxpayer funds over those 13 years.
The school landscape in Arkansas is going to shift. The question left is will it just be rubble after this coming earthquake, or something else?
Rubble seems the most likely, but time will tell.
(K4: 17) (K-6: 152) (7-12: 111) Total: 280
School Founded 1977
(K4: 12) (K-8: 31) Total: 43
Faith Christian Family Church
(K4: 29) (K-8: 269) Total: 298
School Founded 1944
(K4: 45) (K-6: 189) (7-12: 89) Total: 323
School Founded 2001
(K4: 22) (K-2: 20) Total: 42
School Founded: 2002
(K4: 44) (K-6: 205) (7-12: 246) Total: 495
School Founded 1981
(K4: 27) (K-6: 109) Total: 136
School Founded 1886
(9-12: 678) Total: 678
School Founded 1930
(K4: 46) (K-5: 296) (6-12: 440) Total: 782
North Little Rock
School Founded 1971
Church of Christ
(K4: 12) (K-8: 113) Total: 125
School Founded 1870
(K4: 24) (K-5: 158) Total: 182
School Founded 1949
(K4: 46) (K-8: 554) Total: 600
School Founded 1986
(K4: 25) (K-6: 115) (7-12: 63) Total: 203
School Founded 1998
(K4: 45) (K-6: 279) (7-12: 219) Total: 543
School Founded 1992
(K4: 37) (K-6: 149) (7-12: 120) Total: 306
School Founded 1953
(K4: 36) (K-5: 317) (6-12: 427) Total: 780
School Founded 1997
(K4: 10) (K-6: 68) (7-12: 46) Total: 124
School Founded 1978
(K4: 44) (K-6: 232) (7-12: 330) Total: 606
School Founded 1924
(K4: 44) (K-5: 101) Total: 145
School Founded 2015
(K4: 23) (K-5: 219) Total: 242
(K4: 60) (K-8: 306) Total: 366
School Founded 1956
(K4: 12) (K-8: 88) Total: 100
School Founded 1878
(K4: 49) (K-6: 245) (7-12: 221) Total: 515
School Founded 2000
(K4: 76) (K-6: 714) (7-12: 763) Total: 1,553
(9-12: 458) Total: 458
School Founded 1851
(K4: 53) (K-4: 186) (5-12: 139) Total: 378
(K4: 36) (K-8: 146) Total: 182
School Founded 2007
(K-8) Total: 71
School Founded 1959
(K4: 37) (K-8: 428) Total: 465
School Founded 1927
(9-12) Total: 123
School Founded 2018
(K4: 80) (K-4: 421) (5-12: 789) Total: 1,290
(K4: 37) (K-6: 93) (7-12: 77) Total: 207
(K4: 16) (K-6: 133) (7-12: 90) Total: 239
School Founded 1879
(K4: 84) (K-5: 551) (6-12: 678) Total: 1,313
School Founded 1976
(K4: 29) (K-4: 65) (5-12: 104) Total: 198
School Founded 1987
(K4: 12) (K-8: 80) Total: 92
School Founded 1908
(K4: 19) (K-5: 82) Total: 101
School Founded 1947
(K4: 49) (K-6: 235) (7-12: 194) Total: 478
(K4: 35) (K-8: 322) Total: 357
School Founded 1948
(K4: 31) (K-8: 32) Total: 63
School Founded 1873
(K4: 27) (K-8: 181) Total: 208
(K4: 49) (K-8: 394) Total: 443
School Founded 1957
(7-12) Total: 143
School Founded 1887
(6-8) Total: 220
(K4: 20) (K-5: 63) (6-12: 80) Total: 163
(K4: 15) (K-5: 122) (6-12: 121) Total: 258
School Founded 2005
(K4: 13) (K-6: 83) (7-12: 99) Total: 195
School Founded 1970
(K4: 16) (K-6: 118) (7-12: 69) Total: 203
School Founded 1985