Rural districts concerned about voucher program accountability, school closures

By ANTOINETTE GRAJEDA | Arkansas Advocate

Bryan Pruitt knows well how being in the right school can spark a love of learning. Nothing generated his interest as a middle school student in Ozark, so he transferred to nearby County Line High School where an agriculture program changed his life.

“When I was at County Line, I could not get enough of school,” he said. “I loved every minute of it.”

Pruitt was inspired by the agri teacher, his favorite, and has worked as an educator and administrator for 36 years. As the current superintendent of the Eureka Springs School District, he’s keenly aware of the discussions around expanding school vouchers in Arkansas and the impact that could have on rural districts like his.

Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders on Wednesday unveiled components of her education plan, which would include state funding for parents to enroll their children in public, private and parochial schools or homeschool through a proposed Education Freedom Account.

While he’s not necessarily against a voucher program like this, Pruitt said he’s absolutely for accountability. 

“If we’re using taxpayers’ money, then accountability needs to be there because we don’t want to be wasteful of taxpayers’ dollar,” he said.

Unlike state-funded public schools, private schools are not required to meet certain standards, such as administering assessment tests or providing transportation.

Bismarck School District Superintendent Susan Kissire said she’s not “threatened by the whole concept of school choice” because she thinks her district could benefit as “one of the highest-achieving school districts in the state.”

But Kissire said there needs to be “a level playing field.” While private schools can choose to kick out a student not meeting their standards or decide not to take on the costs associated with educating a special needs student, Kissire said public schools are required to educate everyone.

“We provide an education to every student that comes to us,” she said. “Regardless of what needs that they may have, we’re going to provide an education to that student.”

Kissire is also concerned about the potential for segregation and said she doesn’t want a return to the apartheid of the past. 

“It’s wonderful to have all of our students together learning from each other, learning from their cultures, having those experiences,” she said. “That’s one concern is that with this [in] some areas parents might try to go into different areas, and that might cause some segregation concerns in some different school districts, and I would just really hate to see that happen.”

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