Court challenge fails to derail Arkansas education choice scholarships

The headline: The Arkansas Supreme Court upheld state lawmakers’ vote to fast-track landmark education legislation. 

So, what: Education choice opponents’ legal challenge to lawmakers’ approval of an emergency clause delayed the legislation, including the state’s new Education Freedom Accounts, from starting immediately.  

An earlier start would have given families more time to sign up and providers more time to prepare. The lawsuit forcing delays was an attempt to sow chaos,” said Tim Horton, founder and CEO of the think tank Opportunity Arkansas. He described the “flimsy lawsuit” as “utterly silly.” 

Chaos averted: The 6-1 ruling is largely symbolic because it comes more than two months after the state constitution allowed the LEARNS Act to take effect despite the lawsuit. The state’s Education Freedom Account (EFA) program got underway on Aug. 1. 

Arkansas Secretary of Education Jacob Oliva formerly served as chancellor of the public schools division of the Florida Department of Education.

About 4,800 students have signed up for the EFA program, which is administered by the Arkansas Department of Education, headed by former Florida Department of Education Chancellor Jacob Oliva.  

Of those, 44% are students with disabilities and 31% are first-time kindergarteners, according to the state’s first report on the program as required annually by state law.  

What’s next: The EFA program phases in over three years, with limited eligibility the first year that expands to become universal in year three. Qualifying expenses are also limited the first year to tuition/fees, uniforms, and testing, but during the 2024-25 school year will expand include to instructional materials, tutoring services, curricula, supplemental supplies, certain technology devices, transportation costs, and fees for college courses. Each participating student receives about $6,600, or 90% of what the state spends per public school pupil.  

 Phew: Had the high court sided with the education choice opponents, the decision could have opened the door to challenges of laws that have been on the books for years. 

“The court played it straight. They could have played politics, but they didn’t,” said Leslie Hiner, vice president of legal affairs for the national advocacy group EdChoice. As a result, the case won’t cause a ripple effect. 


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BY Lisa Buie

Lisa Buie is senior reporter for reimaginED. The daughter of a public school superintendent, she spent more than a dozen years as a reporter and bureau chief at the Tampa Bay Times before joining Shriners Hospitals for Children — Tampa, where she served for nearly five years as marketing and communications manager. She lives with her husband and their teenage son, who has benefited from education choice.