Arkansas voucher program for students with disabilities draws ire of parents, advocates

The Arkansas Capitol building in Little Rock, where legislators passed the first school voucher program in the state's history in 2015, and where they passed a $2 million tax credit voucher program earlier this month. (Photo by Drew Tarvin via Flickr.)

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?"

The requirements for private schools receiving the Succeed Scholarship are minimal — far less stringent than the requirements imposed on public schools. "We intentionally said that those schools that would be recipients were not required to meet any state standard, except some very rudimentary type things," explained former state Rep. Douglas House (R), who sponsored the legislation creating the program. He said its aim was to help children with severe disabilities who were not being served by their home school districts, to keep school districts from having to spend copious amounts of money to educate them, and to give parents greater control over their children's education. 

"The point is the parent gets to make that decision, not the school, not the school district, not the teachers," said House. "The parents make the decision what is best for their child, and that's the most important thing."

But the program was set up in a way that gives ADE very little authority over the private schools receiving the funding. And what authority it does have it doesn't always use.

For example, ADE does not proactively ensure that requirements are being met, as it does in the case of public schools, but rather responds to concerns as they arise. In an interview with Facing South, ADE attorney Courtney Salas-Ford said that the department's accountability processes for public and private schools are "night and day."

"We have an affirmative obligation to monitor and ensure compliance with the public schools," she said. "It's not the complaint-initiated thing we do with private schools."

But parents often don't realize how little authority the state has over private schools, according to disability rights advocate Masseau. They are "accepting this scholarship thinking they're going to get the moon, the sun, the stars, everything," he said. "And in fact, they're getting very scarce services."

The case of the Hannah School

Several parents who received the scholarship for their children to attend the Hannah School, a private school near Little Rock for children with dyslexia, told Facing South they feel misled and dissatisfied with the education their children received.

"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."

The accusations of lax standards came amid wider chaos at the school, with private parent messages and Facebook groups roiled with charges of leadership problems. Some parents who had been planning to relocate their children to another school — and take the Succeed Scholarships with them — changed their mind. Majors resigned and left the school altogether. Shelly Bennet, at the time the third board member, also resigned and pulled her child out of the Hannah School. She's currently homeschooling him.

"I just wanted to take my child out because I knew they were not doing a good intervention program," said Bennet. "I don't even know what to call that place. It has been, in my 48 years, one of the biggest mistakes I've ever made." After her time on the board, she said, she'd also become concerned that the school was not meeting all the requirements of the Succeed Scholarship program and was being financially mismanaged.  

Fonticiella told Facing South she never received any of her child's records from the year he spent at the school, including therapy records she requested. At this point, she assumes that the records don't exist and that he never received the required therapy. "They were still receiving [Succeed Scholarship] money while fixing a problem they knew about for years," she said. "How could they lie so blatantly about the services they provided and now have no consequences?"

Fonticiella has placed her son back in public school. When she pulled him out of the Hannah School in the fall, the same private evaluator who first diagnosed him with dyslexia re-evaluated him and found he had made almost no progress and was behind grade level. Now, she says, he's back on grade level. "He's doing fantastic with proper intervention and support from his public school," she said.

"The state is pouring money into these programs while continuing to underfund special education services," said Sujith Cherukumilli of the Southern Education Foundation. "If you relegate the public schools and the special education systems within them to failure, you're not really providing any options for them."

ADE did not follow up with the parents who filed complaints to inform them of whether the Hannah School was meeting eligibility requirements, according to public records reviewed by Facing South. A spokesperson for the department told Facing South that the Hannah School is currently in compliance with the requirements of the Succeed Scholarship, including having a special education teacher on contract and administering an approved assessment. Salas-Ford told Facing South that "academic accountability," a requirement laid out in the program's rules, is "very difficult to measure" and thus for ADE to enforce. She also told Facing South that the department considers only those defined by the school itself as "teachers" to be teachers.

The department did not respond to Facing South's specific questions about whether the school had ever been in violation of the Succeed Scholarship requirements, and if so what had been done to ensure those issues were addressed.

Melissa Hannah and the Hannah School did not return multiple requests for an interview or comment. Emails obtained in a public records request show that the same day Facing South emailed an interview request, Hannah emailed ADE to see if anything further needed to be done to ensure the school's eligibility.

"On October 6, 2020, you responded to allegations and provided supporting documentation to verify compliance," responded Rhonda Saunders, the ADE employee who works most closely with the Succeed Scholarship.

Broader questions of oversight, equity

The saga at the Hannah School — which remains one of the largest recipients of Succeed Scholarships in Arkansas to this day, with more than 60 recipients on its rolls — is Exhibit A for education and disability advocates in Arkansas who argue that the program is overfunded and under-scrutinized, and perhaps shouldn't exist at all. Arkansas is one of 11 states with a voucher program specifically for students with disabilities, and one of six in the South, according to a 2018 report.

ADE has very little authority over private schools in the state, including those receiving Succeed Scholarship funding. The program rules set out a list of criteria eligible schools must meet, and administrators must sign a document certifying that they do meet those requirements in addition to providing some supporting documentation. The department investigates schools only if they receive a complaint, and an investigation of a school receiving the Succeed Scholarship has not to this point included an in-person visit to the school. The rules for the scholarship also note that ADE does not have any authority over the curriculum or education plan being used for a child with a disability at a given school.

According to public records obtained by Facing South, in November 2019 one parent alleged that Abundant Life Christian Academy in the city of Sherwood had hired teachers without bachelors' degrees and did not have a special education consultant active at the school, according to emails obtained via public records request. "I do not believe Abundant Life is able to meet children's needs appropriately," the parent wrote.

Abundant Life supplied documents to ADE showing that they contracted with special ed teachers. But ADE did not attempt to verify that the school employed only teachers with bachelors' degrees or higher until April 2021, nearly a year and a half after the parent's initial email, when Facing South asked whether the school had answered those charges.

The first biennial report on the Succeed Scholarship, released last spring, showed that more than half of scholarship recipients were concentrated at three schools in Central Arkansas, including the Hannah School — two in or near Little Rock and one in Conway. These schools each had more than 60 scholarship recipients, in some cases making up more than half of the student body. The report also noted that more than 25% of all scholarship recipients were in Little Rock. The majority of schools with students receiving the scholarship are Christian schools. 

Critics of the program point out that Arkansas is a rural state, and many rural areas don't have private schools at all — let alone private schools that could serve children with disabilities. But House, the bill's original sponsor, said that is not the state's problem. Parents of children with educational needs not being met in their home district, House said, should not rely on the state for help — even though federal law gives children with disabilities a right to a free, appropriate education. "The smart thing they should do, if that's a priority for them, is move to a place where those needs can be met," he said.

That's not an adequate answer for many education advocates. "The state is pouring money into these programs while continuing to underfund special education services," said Sujith Cherukumilli of the nonprofit Southern Education Foundation. "If you relegate the public schools and the special education systems within them to failure, you're not really providing any options for them."

Advocates also question whether the Succeed Scholarship is accessible to everyone who might need it. "Anecdotally, what we have seen is that those with disabilities that are primary learning disabilities [like] ADHD, charter schools and these other schools are more apt to take them in," said Masseau of Disability Rights Arkansas. "Students with severe disabilities — those in wheelchairs, those with dexterity [problems] or whatever it might be — are less likely to be admitted into these voucher programs because schools are not equipped to handle and provide the services they need to succeed."

And the money the state gives for Succeed Scholarship students is not enough to cover tuition at many private schools, which means parents still often have to pay out of pocket for their child to attend — putting those educational options financially out of reach for parents living in poverty. According to last year's report, just 17% of students receiving the Succeed Scholarship were known to be free- and reduced-lunch eligible. Statewide, 60% of all public school students are eligible. And 78% of students receiving the Succeed Scholarship were white, although white students make up just 61% of students with disabilities statewide.  

"It's not really a voucher for a quality education in a private school. It's really more of a discount coupon," said Bill Kopsky, executive director of the Arkansas Public Policy Panel, which opposes voucher programs..

The lack of transparency over what happened at the Hannah School points to bigger questions over where state resources are best directed — a question that public school advocates already viewed as urgent but that has become even more so as the legislature has passed more expansive school choice legislation. The new tax-credit scholarship legislation, critics on both sides of the aisle say, doesn't ensure enough accountability for schools receiving funds. It also doesn't require that private schools receiving funds comply with anti-discrimination provisions.

School choice programs almost always come at the expense of public schools and the children they serve, critics charge. "They suck up all this oxygen and resources away from the things that we should be focusing on, that would improve the quality of education for everybody," Kopsky said.

Arkansas state Sen. Joyce Elliott (D), a longtime public education advocate, worries that legislators are often "chasing the next bright shiny object" in education policy making instead of focusing on systemic fixes. "It sounds very good to say, 'Well, we've just got to give the money to the parents because they know best,'" she said. "Well, that's not how public money is supposed to be used, no more than you wouldn't give me my part of public money to build my street in front of my house the way I want to."

"[There's] this notion that we don't have a responsibility to work together to create a system for all kids to be successful," she continued. "And the chances of doing all these things are becoming less and less as we continue to siphon money from the public school funds."