Nearly 4,800 Arkansas students received school choice funding

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(The Center Square) — The first annual report on Arkansas’ school choice accounts shows 4,795 students participated, with 95% going to private schools.

The Arkansas Department of Education report shows $7.1 million of the $32.5 million estimated funding for the 2023-2024 school year is spent as of Sept. 20. But that amount could increase as more applications are approved, which leaves the fiscal impact unknown.

Other factors also affect the fiscal impact on the state’s coffers. Students who attended private schools last year were not counted in state funding for education, and additional revenue is needed to fund their school choice accounts.

The state funds the difference between local property tax contributions and the full per-pupil foundation funding amount for public school students. The amount was $7,413 during the 2022-2023 school year, according to the report.

“However, because funding amounts are set based on prior year enrollment counts, the earliest the impact could be felt if a student left their public district for the 2023-2024 school year is in the 2024-2025 school year,” the report said. “Even in that year, the state may support the district through Declining Enrollment Funding or other programs, and thus the full fiscal impact of the enrollment decline is not felt until 2025-2026.”

The money from what is called Education Freedom Accounts went to 94 schools, according to the report, which covers the period from June 19 to Sept. 20.

“Most participating schools are located within the Central and Northwest regions, representing 43% and 20% of total schools, respectively, which aligns to child population patterns in the state.” the report said. “In coming months, ADE will conduct a needs analysis to determine unmet demand in other parts of the state, including the Delta and Southwest.”

Education officials will present the report to the Arkansas Legislative Executive Council on Oct. 20, Kimberly Mundell, director of communications for the BOE, told The Center Square.

The school choice accounts were approved by lawmakers in the LEARNS Act, including teacher pay raises, reading tutors and school safety measures.

Opponents of the bill unsuccessfully tried to place a question on the 2024 ballot that would have allowed voters to decide if the LEARNS Act should be repealed.

The Arkansas Supreme Court is considering a court case challenging whether or not the Legislature added an emergency clause to the bill, making it effective immediately. A lower court judge ruled lawmakers did not enact an emergency clause.

The case is still pending even though the bill went into effect automatically on Aug. 1. Attorney General Tim Griffin said the court needs to rule on the challenge to the emergency clause, or other legislative decisions would be jeopardized.

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