Parents of students with disabilities are paying the price of Sarah Sanders’ rushed LEARNS Act, according to sources close to a Little Rock school.

Easterseals Academy at Riverdale serves students with disabilities, many who previously accessed special education services while attending public school.

Three aspects of LEARNS have made this situation dire for parents: (1) the sudden increase in public school teacher pay means the school has to increase their salaries in order to retain in the current market; (2) the LEARNS educational freedom accounts will cover less than the scholarship most students currently have, which it will replace; (3) the financial aid options the school found were not accessible to their families. This means many parents can no longer afford the only school their child has been able to attend without major disruption in their lives. These parents feel as though there is nowhere else for their child to go.

Sanders mandated a $50,000 minimum salary for public school teachers, and in order to retain staff and keep doors open, other schools will have to compete. According to leadership, Easterseals is supportive of paying teachers more, but this means tuition costs will increase as well. Once the school knew that tuition would be increasing substantially, leadership began seeking avenues for financial support, and they believed they had identified some options for families in need. After many parents applied for the support options to cover tuition, the school learned parents were actually ineligible for the scholarships. 

The vast majority of the students at this school previously attended public school and were referred to Easterseals Academy as a place where their needs could be better met. Parents feel as though there is nowhere else for their child to go. This is an example of a private school option that school-choice advocates would champion. But the harsh reality is that under LEARNS, the school has become inaccessible to almost half its families.

The Numbers: what is the LEARNS financial burden for these families?

Families were notified in early April that tuition would be increasing to $14,250, more than 33% higher from the previous year’s $10,650 tuition. Parents immediately responded with concerns about their ability to pay the difference. Soon after hearing these concerns, an employee at the school informed parents that “the primary reason for the increase in tuition is language in the LEARNS Act.” The employee also promised parents they would have an opportunity to ask the Easterseals executive team questions in an upcoming meeting.

Around 60 students who currently attend the Easterseals Academy at Riverdale receive the SUCCEED Scholarship, available through a partnership between the Division of Elementary and Secondary Education and The Reform Alliance, a pro school-choice nonprofit. Under LEARNS, the SUCCEED Scholarship will no longer exist, and it will be replaced by Educational Freedom Accounts, the voucher program created in the legislation. 

The SUCCEED Scholarship covered $7,413 of the $10,650 tuition for the 2022-2023 school year. The remaining $3,237 was either paid out of pocket by parents at $323.70 per month over ten months or covered through other income-based assistance. The Educational Freedom Accounts replacing SUCCEED Scholarships will only cover $6,600, another $813 difference for parents to find. 

Income-based scholarship options have historically included the ACE Scholarship and the HOPE Scholarship, an in-house sliding-scale scholarship granted by the Easterseals finance department.

On April 12 parents were sent letters explaining more about the new tuition prices and identifying two scholarship opportunities to assist worried families: the Philanthropic Investment in Arkansas Kids (PIAK) Scholarship and the HOPE Scholarship.

Last week in a meeting, Easterseals leadership revealed to hopeful parents two concerning findings about these two options. The ACE Scholarship was only going to be awarded to students attending faith-based schools, excluding Easterseals Academy students from eligibility. The HOPE Scholarship was depleted and unable to serve families as it has in the past. In the same meeting, parents of the school were asked to raise an additional $160,000 to help several families who are unable to pay the 2023-2024 tuition increases caused by the LEARNS Act. Parents rallied together and planned a committee to share ideas to make up the costs and help the families in need.

The bottom line: after the Educational Freedom Account funds are awarded, parents will be left footing a tuition bill of $7,650, or $765 per month over the ten months school is in session. This is more than double what parents had to pay or seek scholarships for in the previous year.

The school, parents, and Easterseals leadership are united in their dedication to ensure every current student can continue to access their education, opposed to the Sanders administration which doesn’t seem to care what happens to students in this situation.

This dire reality is what led leaders at Easter Seals to approach parents for fundraising needs. The school’s goal is for no current student at the Easterseals Academy at Riverdale to leave due to the financial burden that the LEARNS Act is placing on them. 

In addition to discussing fundraising needs, Easterseals leadership explained how this situation was created. Parents were told, “Our new Governor wanted to make a priority out of reforming education. The LEARNS Act was passed by the legislature in almost record time. This meant there was very little opportunity for input, comment, or feedback.” The Easterseals community saw this coming and tried to work with legislators and the Governor to ensure their students would not be put in this situation. LEARNS, according to Easterseals leadership, was on a fast track to getting passed. And as a result, there are unintended consequences. 

Sanders needed her omnibus LEARNS package to be rushed through the legislative process and into law. Now, parents of Arkansas’s most vulnerable students are footing the bill of the Governor’s decision to play political games with our kids’ futures.