It may be early in the 2023-2024 school year, but the success of the LEARNS Act is already being felt for thousands of kids across the state of Arkansas: according to a new report from the state, the accounts are helping thousands of kids with disabilities and the program is expected to come in under-budget this year.
As a quick reminder, Education Freedom Accounts (EFAs) are a core component of the LEARNS Act. Arkansas students that choose not to participate in the public education system can establish an EFA.
The accounts are funded with 90 percent of the funding that otherwise would have gone to a local public school to cover the cost of that student’s education. For this school year, that amounts to $6,672 for each child that chooses to participate.
The 2023-2024 school year is the first year these accounts have been operational. However, the accounts are currently only available to a small portion of Arkansas’s student population. When fully phased in by the 2025-2026 school year, all students will be eligible. Nevertheless, even with only a small portion of students eligible, the participation levels are impressive.
The Arkansas Department of Education just released the first annual report on the Education Freedom Account program, as required under state law.
According to the annual report, more than 5,600 Arkansas students applied to participate in the EFA program this school year, showing significant demand from all corners of the state. Just under 4,800 of these kids were approved and are actively participating.
ADE also appropriately notes that this high demand comes in spite of the law’s delayed start and restart due to litigation over the summer.
The annual report also provides meaningful insight about the EFA students. In fact, students with disabilities are the largest share of the program.
At least 44 percent of the EFA enrollees are students with a disability, as defined by the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA).
Notably, when combined with first-time kindergarten students (31%), these two groups of Arkansas kids comprise 75 percent of EFA enrollment.
But in reality, the number of kids with special needs benefiting from EFAs is actually even higher than these numbers show because the vast majority of Succeed Scholarship students – which is broken out as a separate category in the report – are also students with disabilities.
Clearly, Arkansas's most vulnerable are benefiting from EFAs.
Schools that specifically serve special needs students are also clearly benefiting from the new EFA program. This includes schools like Access Academy (Little Rock), Friendship Lab School for Dyslexia (Maumelle), and Easterseals Arkansas (Little Rock).
Each of these schools have been able to enroll a significant portion of their students – ranging from 80 percent up to 100 percent – in the EFA program, providing much-needed financial relief to these Arkansas families and children with special needs.
In even better news, the report reveals that most eligible (i.e. accredited) private schools in Arkansas are participating in the EFA program this year: in total, 94 Arkansas schools are participating in the program, just over 70 percent of the accredited schools in the state.
We should expect to see this number increase next year and beyond as schools get more familiar with the new educational landscape and see the success of the program around them.
(The full breakdown of each participating school, their total enrollment, and their EFA enrollment is available in the ADE report.)
And, despite caterwauling from the newly-converted fiscal hawks on the political Left, the EFA program is not expected to have a meaningful impact on the state budget this year. In fact, quite the opposite.
ADE projects the EFA program will spend just under 70 percent of its total budget this year, leaving more than $14 million unspent.
This could frankly be seen as somewhat regrettable, given the number of Arkansas kids that still need help finding quality education options and getting out of failing schools.
But given all of the phony outrage about how the EFA program will allegedly "explode the state budget," it's certainly a noteworthy point. These claims are completely unfounded.
Arkansas is still early into its education freedom journey, but this initial data is very encouraging. Although it comes as no surprise, it's now even more clear that there's a high demand for EFAs across the state – and this is just the beginning.
To learn more about the LEARNS Act, read our full summary of the law here.
To learn more about Education Freedom Accounts, check out this family handbook from ADE.