Arkansas Poised To Move to Universal School Choice

If Arkansas passes the Learns Act this week, it will be the fourth state to enact a universal school choice program — following similar measures in Arizona, Iowa, and Utah.

Al Drago/Bloomberg, Pool
The governor of Arkansas, Sarah Huckabee Sanders, delivers the Republican response to President Biden's State of the Union address last month. Al Drago/Bloomberg, Pool

Arkansas’s state legislature is expected to pass a universal education savings account plan this week, making it the fourth state to enact a universal school choice policy in the past year.

Governor Sanders, formerly President Trump’s press secretary, has made school choice a hallmark of her short time in office. She announced her plan — called Arkansas Learns — after her moment on the national stage delivering the Republican rebuttal to the State of the Union address.

Ms. Sanders’s plan takes the form of education savings accounts, disbursements of state funds for education-related costs directly to families. ESAs have won favor among school choice advocates over the past decade for their flexible approach to spending. 

Unlike traditional vouchers, ESAs can be used for any number of approved items — including school tuition, textbooks, tutoring, and homeschooling curricula — and unspent funds can roll over from year to year, incentivizing families and retailers to economize.

“We want to make sure we’re empowering parents by giving them educational freedom accounts to allow them to make the best decision about where and how their kids should be educated,” Ms. Sanders said in a Fox News interview last month.

The annual disbursement per child is roughly equal to the per-pupil funding at a public school in the state. In Arkansas, ESAs — known as Education Freedom Accounts — would roll out at around $7,500 per student, with provisions for adjustments based on inflation.

The legislation would increase accessibility to ESAs over a three-year span. The 2025-26 academic year would be the first that any Arkansas student would be eligible for an ESA. 

If Arkansas passes the Learns Act this week, it will be the fourth state to enact a universal school choice program — following similar measures in Arizona, Iowa, and Utah. West Virginia has a near universal program, with 93 percent of students statewide eligible for ESAs, according to EdChoice.

School choice is just one component of the sprawling education bill, which clocks in at more than 140 pages. The Learns Act also includes provisions for public schools, including raising the minimum teacher salary to $50,000 a year. 

Democrats have pushed back hard against the bill. In a statement last week, the state’s Democratic Party called the legislation a “scam” to “dismantle and defund our public school system.”

“This bill does not address the state’s responsibility to provide a suitable, efficient school funding system,” a state legislator, Joy Springer, said.

Ms. Springer and her allies’ efforts matter little in the Arkansas legislature, though, as it is held by a Republican supermajority. 

The bill is expected to pass the state legislature this week. An earlier version passed the state senate, but a technical amendment was added regarding public school teachers’ employment rights.

The amended bill was passed by the house and will likely have a quick turnaround in the senate by mid-week, making it ready for signing by the governor by the end of week.

The New York Sun

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