Politics & Policy

School Choice Reaches a Tipping Point

More than half the states have now empowered parents. Is Hillary Clinton listening?

Arkansas’s recent enactment of a school-choice voucher law is highly symbolic. As the 25th state to adopt school choice, Arkansas became the tipping point in the national debate about the idea. Indeed, soon afterwards, Nevada and Montana became the 26th and 27th states to adopt school choice. This development has significance for, among others, Hillary Clinton, onetime chair of the Arkansas Educational Standards Committee.

State representative Doug House, a North Little Rock Republican and retired U.S. Army officer, sponsored the Succeed Scholarship Program. Students with disabilities are eligible if they have been enrolled in an Arkansas public school for at least one year or are dependents of active-duty military members. “Each student’s voucher will be funded at the public school foundation funding amount” of “$6,521 in 2014–15, up to but not exceeding the amount of tuition and fees at the private school,” according to an analysis by the Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice, an Indianapolis non-profit.

The Succeed Scholarship is one fruit of Republicans’ takeover of Arkansas’s state government. Others are a middle-class income-tax cut and a 50 percent capital-gains exemption supported by freshman governor Asa Hutchinson. Think-tank analysts and grass-roots conservatives and libertarians advanced these ideas for decades but met with limited success — charter schools being a notable exception — until Republicans won control of the state legislature in the 2012 elections for the first time since Reconstruction. They solidified their gains in 2014, sweeping all seven state constitutional offices.

One such office — governor — was once held by Bill Clinton, who in 1983 named his wife Hillary to chair the Educational Standards Committee, one of her major policy initiatives prior to the federal Health Care Task Force a decade later. One committee recommendation — mandatory teacher testing — was supported by conservatives in a 1983 legislative special session called by Mr. Clinton. Others followed the liberal playbook: a sales-tax increase (including the grocery tax) for K–12 education. Mr. Clinton, in My Life (2004), wrote that “the 1983 legislative session on education is one of the things I’m proudest of.” Hillary, in Living History (2003), concluded, “Arkansas had a plan in place to raise school standards.”

The Succeed Scholarship is one fruit of Republicans’ takeover of Arkansas’s state government. Others are a middle-class income-tax cut and a 50 percent capital-gains exemption.

A chronic problem has been the Little Rock school district, the state’s largest. In 1957 the Army’s 101st Airborne Division, deployed by President Dwight D. Eisenhower, enforced integration at Central High School. Little Rock was under federal supervision between 1982 and 2007 after courts found it unconstitutionally segregated. The Arkansas Board of Education took over Little Rock in January after six schools were declared in academic distress due to poor test scores over a three-year period. These are the students most in need of school choice, whether vouchers, education savings accounts, or tax-credit deductions and scholarships.

President Bill Clinton met Republicans halfway on charter schools in the mid 1990s. Does Hillary Clinton support school choice for at-risk students in Little Rock, Milwaukee, Cleveland, Washington, and other urban districts? With a majority of states advancing school choice, it is legitimate to ask.

— Greg Kaza is the executive director of the Arkansas Policy Foundation, a Little Rock think tank founded in 1995.

Editors’ Note: This article has been amended since its initial publication.

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