“School Choice” is a staple of almost every Republican candidate’s campaign words and literature. With Republicans having the governor’s office and not just a majority in the Arkansas Senate and Arkansas House of Representatives but a supermajority of each, you would think school choice legislation would pass easily, but most recent school choice legislation has been blocked and what has been passed has been extremely limited.
When a candidate says “I’m for school choice” what does the candidate really mean? There are important sub-sets of this term. Don’t stop at just hearing a candidate supports school choice. The candidate may have little more than good thoughts about school choice and no action. Find out what kind of school choice they mean and to what extent they are willing to help parents and guardians and their children.
To help you understand the issue of school choice so you can ask questions of the candidates we are focusing on the following points:
- What does the platform of the Republican Party of Arkansas say about school choice?
- Why is school choice more important than ever?
- What is school choice?
- Some areas where much work needs to be done
- Does supporting your public school mean opposing the expansion of school choice?
What does the platform of the Republican Party of Arkansas say about school choice?
The platform of the Republican Party of Arkansas is for school choice but some Republican officeholders still fail to support it. The platform promotes “openness to every type of education system available: homeschooling, distance learning, public school, private school, charter school, and vocational or technical school” Further, it says families should have the opportunity to enroll their children in the school of their choice and that opportunity should be “secured by government and offered to Arkansas families.” (To read more on what the Republican platform says on school choice see the notes at the bottom of this article.[i])
Why is school choice more important than ever?
School choice has always been important to parents and guardians who are unsatisfied with the quality of education in the school district in which they live because it doesn’t meet the particular educational needs of their children. Sometimes the school doesn’t have the courses the student needs and occasionally the student needs to escape bullying or a poor learning environment in the school. The option to find better classes and a better learning environment is all the justification one needs to support school choice.
Today, school choice has become more important because of the growing trend across the nation to inject radical indoctrination into school curriculum.
- Some schools around the country sexualize children by exposing them to overtly sexual material or pushing children to consider gender identity at a young age. Recently the state of New Jersey announced it will be teaching gender identity to second graders. Some parents in other states have alleged teachers have tried to get children, even before puberty, to question whether they should try to embody a gender different from the actual gender their genetics gave them.
- Another controversial area is the use of schools to spread racist indoctrination, such as critical race theory, teaching children that depending on the color of their skin they are either inherently the oppressor or inherently the oppressed and that our country’s very founding documents are racist. (Imagine for a moment a child who has had a very hard life because the child’s parents neglected or abused the child and perhaps gave up custody of the child and now to add to the child’s misery some teacher wants to tell this poor child he should now feel bad about the color of his skin. Outrageous!)
Governor Asa Hutchinson talked legislators out of passing a ban on critical race theory and other racist theories saying the issue should be decided at the school district level.
There are hundreds of school districts in Arkansas and few, if any, have addressed these divisive subjects. This means, without a policy against such indoctrination, any teacher in any public school can inject racist theory, sexualized material, and gender identity into any subject being taught.
To make matters worse President Biden’s Department of Justice compared anti-CRT parents to “domestic terrorists.” Is it any wonder parents and guardians increasingly want school choice?
What Is School Choice?
Dr. Patrick Wolf, Distinguished Professor of Education Policy at the University of Arkansas gave a summary of school choice options in an interview on Conduit News. (See the interview) He listed these forms of school choice:
- Transfer to another school district. Arkansas has a school district transfer law and it is called a school choice program. It allows parents to enroll their child in a different public school district than the one in which they live. About 20,000 Arkansans participate in the program statewide.
- Magnet schools. Arkansas has some magnet schools especially in the Little Rock area. Magnet schools are run by the school district and are themed with special emphasis like high achievement or the arts or STEM. There are about 15,000 students enrolled in magnet schools.
- Public Charter schools. Charter schools are independently run public schools. There are 84 charter schools and they serve 42,000 students. Since the pandemic hit, enrollment in charter schools increased by almost 20%. The increase appears to be in part a result of school disruptions related to the pandemic.
- Homeschooling is an education choice that has had major increases. Over 20,000 students are home schooled. It is intentionally designed by parents. The students have a regular schedule and parents can bring outside sources to augment learning. Homeschooling is very different from the remote learning that schools implemented during the pandemic.
- Private schools. Arkansas is low in the percentage of students in private schools. Only about 4% of students in K-12 attend a private school. There are a couple of government programs to assist parents to send their students to a private school. This includes the Succeed Scholarship Program for children with disabilities which serves about 630 disabled students. There is also the new Philanthropic Investment in Arkansas Kids Program for children of low-income families. Unfortunately, the program is limited to serving about 300 low-income students. It is funded by donations to a scholarship granting organization in the state and the donations qualify for a dollar-for-dollar income tax credit. The size of the program is limited by whether all the credits are claimed and by a $2 million cap on available credits.
Some areas where much work needs to be done
Private school option. Just looking at the numbers of students taking advantage of some form of school choice and how few are being assisted to attend private schools, it is clear the state isn’t doing much to help parents desiring to send their children to a private school. The fact that the Republican dominated legislature only manage to pass legislation to provide assistance to a maximum of 300 low-income students should be an embarrassment to the state and its politicians. At a minimum the cap on donations should be substantially increased and more should be done to publicize the donation/ tax credit program.
District transfers. District transfers are popular as shown by there being 20,000 students taking advantage of the program. The program is limited by allowing only a small percentage of students to transfer. The cap should be raised and unnecessary restrictions should be removed.
Charter schools. From the number of students enrolled in the 84 charter schools it is obviously a popular choice among parents. More work needs to be done to promote the creation of more charter schools in more areas of the state.
Other ideas? We have highlighted three areas needing much improvement but we would love to hear about your experiences and about where you found a need for improvement of school choice options.
Does supporting your public school mean opposing school choice?
Some school administrators say support for school choice means you are against your local school. They try to mobilize teachers and their families against school choice. The main attack against school choice is the notion that school choice will take away funding from the school district in which the student resides.
State Representative John Payton (a candidate for Senate District 22) pointed out to us that school funding doesn’t work that way. The public schools will continue to get their money because of the Arkansas Constitution.
In looking at the education provision, Article 14 of the Arkansas Constitution, we found it gives public schools several funding protections.
- First, Article 14 gives school districts the power to propose and pass taxes in the form of a school millage on property. A millage levied by the school district belongs to that school district and can’t be taken away.
- Second, it imposes a statewide 25 mill tax on property to be used solely for maintenance and operation of public schools. That money can’t be taken away from schools either.
- Third, the state of Arkansas provides support to public schools. The Arkansas Supreme Court has said Article 14 requires the state to provide adequate funding for schools. This means the state can’t slash public school funding without running afoul of adequacy. Arkansas’ revenue stabilization law even says if there is not enough general revenue coming into the state to fund the schools the budgets of state agencies must be cut to provide the school funds.
Some state and federal funding for public schools is based on average daily membership, which means how many students attend the school. Are school administrators really saying that because they want to maximize the money they receive on a per student basis, parents should be blocked from having other school options so they will be forced to stay in the school district? Schools were created to serve parents and their children. But administrators with this view seem to see students as nothing but a number used to grab more state and federal funds.
Several years ago, when authorizing homeschooling was the big issue in the state, some school administrators pulled the same funding scare tactics to try to stop homeschooling from becoming a desirable school choice option. But despite the scare tactics, funding wasn’t harmed.
If a school loses students under one of the school choice options, wouldn’t you think it would be a wakeup call to for school administrators to work even harder to provide a quality education, a good learning environment, and to adopt policies assuring parents that radical ideologies will not be tolerated in the school district’s curriculum.
Challenge the Candidates!
Challenge the candidates for Governor, the Arkansas Senate, and the House of Representatives. If they are “against” school choice find out why. If they say they are “for” school choice find out what they mean. Are they satisfied with restricting private school scholarships to only 300 students statewide? Dig deeper. Unless you demand details you aren’t going find out much during the campaign.
If the candidate is an incumbent, look at how they voted on related legislation. Check out key votes in the Conduit for Commerce 2021 Scorecard. Your legislators’ votes are listed in the bottom half of the report. The report is divided into economic issues and social issues.
[i] The Education Section of the Republican Party of Arkansas Platform includes these statements related to school choice:
“Arkansas’s children deserve a world class education, developed by parents, educators, and leaders accountable to our citizens, regardless of their zip code. This requires openness to every type of education system available: homeschooling, distance learning, public school, private school, charter school, and vocational or technical school.” “Every tool should be given equal consideration and be utilized in a manner that puts the student’s needs above all ‘to secure to the people the advantages and opportunities of education.’” “Every education decision we make is with the students and parents first in our minds!” “Every opportunity for every family to enroll each child in the school of its choice should be secured by government and offered to Arkansas families. Parents must have the ability to make informed choices regarding the education of their children and should not be restricted by lines on a map or the cost of tuition.”