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School Choice Flourishing in Arkansas with Sarah Huckabee-Sanders Leading the Charge

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ROGERS, Arkansas – When Sarah Huckabee-Sanders was elected Arkansas governor, she quickly made education reform the focus of her term. The former press secretary to President Donald Trump also vowed to make school choice a key part of those efforts.  

Today, Arkansas is one of 14 states that offer public funds for students to attend private schools. We visited a family who opted-in to find out if the new voucher program could make a lasting impact.

The halls are bustling at Providence Academy here in Rogers. The private classical Christian school is at capacity with 580 students, and 71 of those students are enrolled through the state's new school voucher program.

Kira Workman, an 8th grader, told us, "We toured like a bunch of different schools to see which one would be the best fit and it was just like something – a sign from God –  that Providence just had something like, whoa, this is above all the other places."

Providence Academy in Rogers, Arkansas is part of the school voucher program.

Kira is thriving in the Christian environment. And her mom says she couldn't be happier after watching Kira struggle in public school. 

"Public school was not a good fit for Kira. Academically she did fine, socially it was difficult," Shanna Workman said. 

Providence Academy President Jason Ross said, "To hear Kira's story is touching. It's special to be part of the Kingdom of God and a ministry in a way that could impact them, potentially for the rest of their lives."

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School choice programs are growing nationwide. So far this year, lawmakers in 14 states have passed bills establishing school choice or expanding existing ones.  So far, 42 states have introduced such bills, according to EdChoice, a non-profit that tracks school choice policies. In fact, the proliferation of new or expanded school choice programs has advocates calling 2023 "the year of universal choice." 

Huckabee-Sanders titled her new education policy – which includes school vouchers – the "LEARNS Act."

Arkansas state Senator Bart Hester (R) told us, "Arkansas education is among the very worst in the country. I am not going to argue, are we 45th or 48th? The fact is, we were at the bottom of education and something drastic had to be done now."

Here's how it works:  Parents of students approved for school choice at set up with what's called "educational freedom accounts" which provide $6,600 in public funds per student. Ninety-four private and parochial schools in Arkansas are taking part with nearly 5,000 students enrolled statewide.

Ross said, "We were interested in participating for the opportunity to expand on our mission which is to partner with parents in a college preparatory education to equip students with a biblical worldview, all to God's glory. So to us, it meant more families to serve and to partner with, some of which would not be able to participate in our program if not for the LEARNS Act and the funding."

But the LEARNS Act didn't pass without a fight, including protests and a failed attempted statewide referendum.

Sen. Hester said, "I think the State of Arkansas is charged by our constitution with educating kids. It doesn't say educate them with a public school education, it doesn't say educate in any particular way. So we take that as what is the best way to educate all kids and it's with choice and with options."

Senator Hester says the final peg to push school choice through the Arkansas State Legislature and implement it with educators, meant finding someone who has done it before. So they tapped into the office of Florida Governor Ron DeSantis (R) and hired away his Education Secretary, Jacob Oliva.

"Secretary Oliva was the key to passing this legislation and he will be the key for the success of this legislation," Hester said.  

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Providence Academy, and all private schools, are committed to giving annual tests to all voucher students to assess their learning. Shanna says what's hard to measure, but evident, is the way a Christian education has impacted her daughter's mental health.

"She's happy," Shanna said. "She comes out of school smiling, she has friends, she has a group of friends she never had before and they accept her for who she is and they love her for who she is."

"It makes me feel real good that some kids that were getting lost in the shuffle are now getting to go shine somewhere else," Hester said. "It is imperative that kids get more options that parents get to lead on."

Kira says she's glad she was led to Providence Academy.

"Their motto is building leaders for Christ. So they're building leaders for the Lord, they give you a great education, they just make you be this amazing person and  really prepare you for life," she said.
The Arkansas school choice program is being rolled out in yearly phases. Next year, eligibility will be extended to students enrolled in D-rated schools and students whose parents are veterans or first responders.  

By the 2025-26 school year, all students will be eligible.

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