National Group Seeks to Help Defend Arkansas School Voucher Program

The complaint alleges that using funds intended for public schools elsewhere violates a Constitutional provision.

Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders and Education Secretary Jacob Oliva talk about the LEARNS Act and what it means for K-12 education in Arkansas at an invitation-only town hall in El Dorado on June 6, 2023. (Randall Lee/Courtesy of the Governor’s Press Office)

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Partnership for Educational Choice, a group that “defends educational choice nationwide,” filed a motion this week asking to join the defense of an Arkansas lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of a new school voucher program.

Four guardians of public school students filed the lawsuit earlier this month in the Pulaski County Circuit Court. The plaintiffs asked a judge to block enforcement of the Education Freedom Account Program created by the Arkansas LEARNS Act. The complaint alleges that using funds intended for public schools elsewhere violates a Constitutional provision.

The complaint also contends, “If implemented, the LEARNS Act will drain valuable and necessary resources from the public school system and create a separate and unequal school system that discriminates between children based on economic, racial and physical characteristics and capabilities.”

Current defendants include Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders, Education Secretary Jacob Oliva, the Arkansas State Board of Education and Department of Finance and Administration Secretary Jim Hudson.

Partnership for Educational Choice is described as “a joint project of the Institute for Justice and EdChoice.” Both of the listed organizations are nonprofits with a history of defending school voucher programs like the one Sanders championed in 2023.

If the motion to intervene from Partnership for Educational Choice is approved, attorneys would represent three Arkansas mothers who currently use — or intend to use — the voucher program, according to a press release. Those mothers are Erika Lara of Little Rock, Katie Parrish of Paragould and Nikita Glendenning of Van Buren.

“Before I received my Education Freedom Account, my son was being bullied and struggling academically, but now I have the resources to put him into a school where he’s thriving,” Lara said in a press release. “Taking away this program would put my son’s academic and social progress in jeopardy.”

More than 5,400 Arkansas students participated in the first year of the program, which is being phased in over three years. Participation will be capped at about 14,000 students for the 2024-2025 school year. Around $6,600 in state funding was available to each student last year. That will increase to nearly $6,900 this year.

Lawmakers recently approved $97.5 million for the state’s voucher program for the 2025 fiscal year. The program could cost upwards of $175 million in its third year when it’s available to all Arkansas students, the state finance department has estimated.

Among the reasons for intervention, the motion notes the mothers’ interest in the program is “inextricably intertwined with their fundamental liberty interest in ‘directing the upbringing and education’ of their children.”

Lara and Parrish each have one child that has switched schools using the Education Freedom Account Program. The motion notes that if the program is struck down, the women would be left in a difficult financial situation. Glendenning intends to use the program for two of her four children during the 2025-2026 school year.

“Despite repeated court rulings that these types of programs are constitutional, opponents of educational choice continue to attack these programs,” said Ed Choice Vice President and Director of Litigation Thomas M. Fisher in a press release. “We look forward to defending this program and making clear that it is constitutional.”

Arkansas Advocate is part of States Newsroom, a nonprofit news network supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Arkansas Advocate maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Sonny Albarado for questions: info@arkansasadvocate.com. Follow Arkansas Advocate on Facebook and X.

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