At 8 years old, Jeremiah Adams is starting to read for the first time. He was delayed several years in public school because of his slow reading, but his family says this new private school is changing him. He notices his surroundings in new ways, approaches learning differently, even insists on going to school.
“Before where he wouldn’t even pick up a book, now he wants to read," says grandmother Petra Delarosa. "Now we’re driving to school, he’ll see a word like on a billboard or something he’ll say, ‘Nana, how do you say this?’ ‘Nana did I say that right?' 'What does that mean, Nana?' Before he wouldn’t do that at all.”
This fall, Adams is one of 100 special education students around the state who moved from public schools to private ones under Arkansas’s first voucher program, the Succeeds Scholarship.
The program was approved during the 2015 legislative session with an initial $800,000 in public funding to be managed by the Reform Alliance, a Walton Family Foundation project.
“This can be a win-win because when you put students in schools they want to be in everyone's happier," says Executive Director Katie Clifford.
Of the schools included in the program, most are located in cities — Little Rock and Fort Smith, and in Northwest Arkansas. Participating schools must have accreditation by an approved entity and a proven track record of financial stability. They must have a certified special education teacher on staff, but they are not required to have a special education program in existence.
Some of the approved programs have launched new special education programs this year specifically to qualify for the voucher program. The private, mostly religious schools participating in the program work with the Reform Alliance to vet eligible children. The decision is not entirely the family's — it is partly up to the school to determine whether it’s a good fit or not.
Adam’s grandmother, Delarosa, a non-practicing Catholic, says she pays close to $6,000 dollars in annual tuition at Immaculate Conception in Fort Smith. The voucher program is worth about $6,646 a year for students who are approved.
Her application has been approved, but she’s still awaiting the funds. Students with a broad array of learning and other disabilities are eligible, as are those like Adams, who has no particular diagnoses and instead has an Individualized Education Plan (IEP).
Delarosa chose to move Adams to Immaculate Conception in Fort Smith because he wasn’t making the progress she hoped with his reading and had been delayed a grade. She says aside from his literacy challenges, and a history of seizures, he doesn’t have intellectual disabilities. Adams is a reticent boy, and Delarosa had hoped smaller class sizes, and a more structured environment made any possible financial risks worth taking.
Delarosa says his public school teachers loved him but he seemed overwhelmed there because of the bigger classes and challenging curriculum that she struggled herself to help him with.
“He would go in there, he wouldn’t know what to do," she says. “He was a lot more lost in the public school.”
Clifford says she is collecting anecdotes from parents like Delarosa to again push for increased funding in the upcoming 2017 legislative session. She’s received calls from around 1,000 interested parents.
On a national level, school vouchers may soon be getting a boost. President-elect Donald Trump has said he would support investing $20 billion dollars in a national school choice initiative for underserved students to attend private schools, charters and traditional public schools.
Opponents of vouchers in the state, including the state’s union, the Arkansas Educational Association, say it takes money out of public education at a time when the state is struggling to meet basic adequacy requirements.
“It’s really important that we invest in public school,” says AEA director Tracey-Ann Nelson “When you take $800,000 from public funding for funding from the public schools and re-shift it to private entities, those kids all around the state who don’t have access are the ones who lose out,” she says.
Last week state legislators were unable to compromise on funding recommendations for the governor’s 2017 budget. The governor is pushing for a $50 million tax cut, rolled out over the next two years. It’s not clear how that could be accomplished if lawmakers achieve their goal of much needed raises for teacher salaries, along with other adequacy funding needs for struggling districts statewide.
Nelson also points to some of the academic disadvantages of the private school option. To apply for the voucher, parents must waive federal legal protections that set requirements for the support and monitoring of special needs students.
“Public school is where special needs kids actually get all the services, because private [schools] don’t have the capacity to do it the way public school has,” she says. So the tradeoff they must weigh is taking their student out of a potentially larger public school that offers a wider array of programs tailored to students with particular physical or intellectual disabilities and specialized staff trained to assist them, for a potentially more personal setting, possibly with a religious focus the student's family may or may not subscribe.
Principal of Christ Lutheran School in Little Rock, Heidi Jerry, says there are significant benefits of a religious school environment for many special needs children who tend to have self-esteem issues.
“They start to see themselves as loved already by someone, as of value, of importance to our God. They were created exactly the way they were. To hear that on a daily basis ... that they have something to offer this world,”she says.
Clifford acknowledges concerns about drawing funds from the public school system, but she says "the goal is to provide opportunities for students who wouldn’t otherwise have opportunities.”
Efforts this year to launch or expand voucher programs in Mississippi and Tennessee were unsuccessful.
Arkansas is one of 10 states that has vouchers for special education students.