What is the current status of school choice in Arkansas? Basically, the government education industry has a strangle hold over the children of low- and middle-income families. In other words, school choice in Arkansas is primarily for those families who can afford private school or can afford to move to a better public school district or can afford to have one parent stay home to teach their children as well as pay for their textbooks.
Low-and middle-income families are stuck sending their children to the government education plantation and have to hope the school will provide a good education that will not push radical left ideology.
Yes, Arkansas has some school choice programs, but the scope is so limited as to be called “school choice in name only.” Let’s take a look at where Arkansas’ school choice stands in 2022.
The school choice menu will typically include the ability (regardless of income) to send your children to a private school, to a government school (where you live, in another district from where you live, or a charter school), or to home school your child.
Private School Choice: In 2021, Senator Jonathan Dismang (R) sponsored and passed a law to allow low-income families to apply for a scholarship to attend a private school. The scholarships are funded by private donations, and the donations qualify for a dollar-for-dollar Arkansas tax credit. The bad news for low-income parents is that the cap on the donations is so low only a few hundred students across the state can benefit from the plan.[i] While the new law was a victory, if the law is not drastically expanded, it will remain an empty promise for most low-income families. We hope the 2021 law will serve as the nose of the camel under the tent and lead to a drastically expanded law.
Charter School: A charter school is still a government school and is publicly funded. But a charter school is allowed more flexibility by being exempt from some state regulations. Charter schools must reapply for their charter every five years and must demonstrate a good standard of performance. There are two types of charter schools in Arkansas.[ii]
- Open Enrollment Charter Schools may accept students from across district boundaries and are organized by a governmental entity, an institution of higher learning, or a tax-exempt non-sectarian organization.
- District Conversion Charter Schools exist where a public school district obtains permission to operate as a charter school and thereby avoid some of the burdens of state regulation.
While Arkansas’s charter school law has been praised for allowing flexibility, the law has also been criticized for its limited breadth and strength.
School District Transfer Law (given the name “School Choice” by politicians): Theoretically, the school district transfer law should allow a family to escape a school district where the family lives and allow transfer to another government school district that is a better fit for the child. We said theoretically. The law only helps a few students. It has limits on how many students may transfer to a better school district, but those low limits are never tested because other restrictions close the door to most families. The law only allows you to apply to transfer for a future school year, and you can’t even apply during the summer between school years. The law already had a cutoff date of May 1 of the school year before the student intends to transfer; then Senator Jane English (R), who will chair the 2022 Senate Education Committee, sponsored legislation to limit the application process to between January 1 and May 1 in the prior school year.[iii]
As you can see, if a parent or guardian discovers the public school, where the child lives, will not have the courses your child needs, your child is being bullied and the school is not addressing it, or that the school has started promoting leftist indoctrination (such as Critical Race Theory or transgender identification), the current school district transfer law will not be of any benefit for a full school year later.
Homeschool: Arkansas law allows parents to teach their children at home. In doing so the parents assume the full responsibility of educating their children – including the financial cost of the curriculum.[iv] While homeschoolers get no financial assistance from the state, Arkansas gets high marks for its home school law simply because, so far, it has not been inundated with burdensome state regulations.
SCHOOL CHOICE: THE BIG PICTURE
Arkansas has passed laws that give a few students the ability to go to a school other than the government school in the district where they live. Arkansas’s school choice options are primarily in name only and keep children of low- and middle-income families stuck in the public school where they live; and it doesn’t matter whether the school is a good one or a bad one. They are stuck whether the administrators and teachers stick to education or are crazed leftists wanting to indoctrinate children.
School choice is about giving parents control over their children’s education. It is also about making government schools more accountable and improving education so that parents will see the local district as their top choice. It is also about improving the work environment for teachers and giving teachers choices for where best to apply their talents.
We now have the example of school choice in Arizona where funds follow the child regardless of which school option the parents choose. What will Arkansas choose? Real school choice or the continuation of school choice in name only?