Looking to LEARNS
In 2023, Arkansas passed the LEARNS Act, a comprehensive and transformational education plan to empower parents with more education options while also strengthening public schools. The Arkansas model has been held up as a model Mississippi could emulate in 2024.
The LEARNS Act incorporates a number of key provisions on which Arkansas Governor Sarah Huckabee Sanders campaigned: empowering parents with educational freedom, improving the education workforce, investing in student outcomes in key subject areas, enhancing career readiness, and more.
Below, we take a look at some of the key components of the LEARNS Act, specifically those that promote parent choice, and consider how they could be applied in Mississippi.
Education Freedom Accounts
First, the LEARNS Act created a new education savings account (ESA) program called Education Freedom Accounts. Education Freedom Accounts offer parents the flexibility to customize their child’s education and select the best education opportunities for them.
This is how it works.
Families are eligible for an Education Freedom Account for each student. Each year that a student is eligible, the state deposits 90% of the prior year’s average net public school aid per student. In other words, the state takes 90% of what it otherwise would have sent to the local district for that child’s education (around $6,700 per year) and deposits it into an account that parents may use on qualified education expenses, such as private school tuition, school supplies, tutoring services, transportation costs, and other approved expenses.
The program is phased in over 3 years. In the first year of the program, no more than 1.5 percent of the state’s public school population may participate, and the only students who qualify are students who are disabled, homeless, current or former foster children, eligible to participate in the Succeed Scholarship program, children of active duty military personnel, attend an F-rated public school, or are enrolling in kindergarten for the first time.
Year 2 expands the program to include students in D-rated public schools and children whose parents are veterans, first responders, law enforcement, or in the military reserves, with a total cap on the program of three percent of public school enrollment.
By year 3 (2025-2026 school year), all Arkansas children will be eligible to participate. This includes homeschool students, though at a reduced amount ($1,000 per student). It is worth noting that the Education Freedom Account program is optional; families are not required to participate.
Importantly, the LEARNS Act didn’t just expand families’ ability to select a private school of their choice. The bill also empowers families to select a different public school than the one to which they are residentially assigned. This concept, where students may transfer freely to a public school district other than the one to which they are zoned, is called open enrollment. The LEARNS Act removed the state limit on the number of inter-district school choice transfers, thereby creating a more robust open enrollment environment within the public school system.
The LEARNS Act further expands public school choice by increasing access to the state’s charter schools. The legislation eliminated the cap on the number of charter schools that can be granted and removed the requirement that charter school applications be approved by local school districts.
Application for Mississippi
Mississippi currently offers parents limited options in K-12 education. While more affluent families have choices today (in that they can afford private school or pay for more expensive homes in higher-performing school districts), most families do not.
The Magnolia State should follow Arkansas’s lead in creating a new ESA that empowers all Mississippi families to choose the best educational fit for their children. Arkansas phased this program in over the course of three years, and Mississippi should also consider a phased-in approach. Doing so will allow lawmakers to prioritize those who may not have options today, such as those trapped in underperforming schools or who don’t have the financial resources to access education alternatives like private school, while ultimately ensuring all Mississippi families can participate. A phased-in approach is also important for both budget predictability and effective administration of the program.
Mississippi’s public-school-choice landscape is equally problematic. Students may only transfer to a public school district other than their assigned district if they receive approval from both the school district they are leaving and the receiving school district. Further, the receiving school district may reject the transfer for any reason, even reasons other than capacity issues, and may charge the student tuition for the transfer. This creates an environment that significantly limits public school choice in the state. Mississippi should follow Arkansas’ example of expanding open enrollment opportunities for students. At the very least, the state should remove the requirement that the student receive approval from their assigned district for the transfer and should require more transparency from the receiving districts on admissions policies, tuition, and capacity.
Finally, our state’s charter school laws are incredibly restrictive. While Arkansas now allows a charter school to open anywhere in the state without local school district approval, charter schools in Mississippi may only do so in D- and F-rated districts. This creates the perception that charter schools are a punishment for poorly performing schools rather than an additional option for parents. Mississippi should adopt Arkansas’ approach to charter schools, enabling them to open in any area of the state where parents want a different public school option.
It is time to put parents back in charge of their children’s education. Mississippi should empower all families with more education opportunities, as Arkansas and many other states have already done. By looking to LEARNS, we can find great examples of how this can be accomplished in the coming years.