Arkansas Launches State’s First-Ever Voucher Program

Published October 5, 2016

Arkansas recently launched the Succeed Scholarship Program for Students with Disabilities (SSPSD), a school voucher program for special-needs children.

SSPSD is the state’s first school choice program. It grants to parents of disabled children vouchers worth up to $6,646, which can be spent on tuition-related expenses at state-approved private schools. 

EdChoice, formerly the Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice, reports, “The funding of the program is averaged at 71 percent of public school per-student spending.”

To be eligible for a voucher, a student must have been enrolled in an Arkansas public school for at least one year or have a parent or guardian who is an active-duty member of the military. There are no income limits to participate.

Students are also required to have an individualized education plan (IEP). The U.S. Department of Education website says an IEP “creates an opportunity for teachers, parents, school administrators, related services personnel, and students (when appropriate) to work together to improve educational results for children with disabilities.”

State legislators enacted the Succeed Scholarship Program for Students with Disabilities in 2015 and limited the program to 100 students for the 2016–17 school year. The Northwest Arkansas Democrat Gazette reported as of early September, “[M]ore than 70 families—two with more than one eligible child—[have] either enrolled a child or were working toward that as of late last week.”

‘A Great Step’

Katie Clifford, executive director of the Reform Alliance, a nonprofit organization that helped create the program, says the voucher program offers more options for special-needs students.

“We believe this is a great step,” Clifford said. “It provides for the students who may not otherwise be able to attend a private school program, particularly because they’re students who have disabilities.”

‘It Is Cost-Effective’ 

Taxpayers actually pay less on a per -pupil basis for the Succeed Scholarship Program than for the same services in public schools in Arkansas, says Patrick Wolf, a professor of education policy at the University of Arkansas College of Education and Health Professions.

“It is cost-effective because most private schools charge tuition levels that are less than the total per-pupil spending in public schools,” Wolf said. “Obviously, some private schools, the elite private schools, are more expensive. But in Arkansas, private schools charge between $3,000 and $6,000 per year, well below what public schools receive [from taxes].”

Finding ‘A School That Fits’

Wolf says school choice makes accommodating special-needs students simpler.

“Students of special needs don’t often fit easily into the traditional public school environment,” Wolf said. “Sometimes, it’s easier to just move a child to a school that fits rather than try to accommodate the child in a school that doesn’t.”

Cheryl K. Chumley ([email protected]writes from northern Virginia.