Education

Arkansas Has a Major School-Choice Opportunity — Unless Misguided Opponents Get in the Way

(Pixabay)
A bill in the state legislature would help families, private schools, and public schools. So why are the state’s superintendents obstructing it?

In a year when the school-choice movement is gaining traction across the nation, progress in Arkansas had appeared to stall. But a month after the Arkansas legislature killed a school-choice bill, the state senate has breathed new life into efforts to expand educational opportunity.

In response to families demanding more educational options, six states have already passed new choice policies or expanded existing ones this year, and similar bills are still making their way through more than a dozen other state legislatures. West Virginia even passed a new state-funded K–12 education savings account for all children switching out of a public school or entering kindergarten. This is now the most expansive educational-choice policy in the nation.

By contrast, the Arkansas House of Representatives failed to pass a bill to create even a very modest educational-choice policy for children from low-income families, foster children, students with disabilities, and the children of military personnel. Had House Bill 1371 passed, up to $4 million would have been available to provide scholarships worth up to $7,000 to about 570 kids, which is barely 0.1 percent of K–12 students in the state. For comparison, Arkansas’s district schools spend an average of more than $11,000 per pupil annually.

According to the bill’s sponsor, Representative Ken Bragg (R., Sheridan), the bill’s demise was due to the fierce opposition from the state’s public-school superintendents. “Most of the people that I talked to felt like it was a good bill and they saw a lot of merits in it,” Bragg lamented, but sadly “the pressure superseded the merits of the bill.”

Fortunately, the Arkansas state senate did not succumb to any pressure. On Thursday, it passed Senate Bill 680, which has the support of Governor Asa Hutchinson and the Arkansas Department of Education, by an overwhelming margin. Although only half the size of the previous proposal and limited only to low-income children, the bill still represents a major step toward providing broad access to educational choice.

The Arkansas House now has another opportunity to do right by Arkansas families desperate for more educational options. Yesterday, the Arkansas House Revenue and Taxation Committee voted to recommend that the full House pass the bill. For that to happen, state legislators will have to recognize that the superintendents’ dire warnings of systemic collapse are no more credible than Chicken Little crying that the sky is falling.

The research about the effects of educational-choice policies on public schools tells a very different story. It overwhelmingly finds that such policies benefit not only participating students, but also the students who remain in their assigned district schools. Out of 27 studies, 25 find that students attending district schools improve their performance on standardized tests after the introduction of a choice program, while only one study found a negative effect, and one found no visible effect.

In other words, contrary to the fears of school-choice opponents, expanding choice and competition encourages traditional public schools to improve their performance.

In fact, a recent study by the University of Arkansas found that states with robust educational-choice policies saw significant improvements on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (known as the “Nation’s Report Card”) over the last two decades. The study concluded that “higher levels of education freedom are significantly associated with higher NAEP achievement levels and higher NAEP achievement gains.” Even after controlling for factors such as per-pupil education spending, student-teacher ratios, teacher quality, household income, and more, the study found that “expanding parental options in education, in all its forms, is consistent with improvements in average student performance for U.S. states.”

The study highlights the experience of Arizona, the top state for educational freedom with the highest share of students in private-school-choice programs, charter schools, and utilizing public school open enrollment. If the Chicken Littles were right, Arizona’s public-school system should have collapsed by now. Instead, Arizona has been one of the national leaders for learning gains on the NAEP over the last two decades.

The sky isn’t falling in any of the 29 states that have some form of private-school-choice program. Indeed, the sun is still shining on their public-school systems, which have not only not collapsed but are actually performing better than before.

Arkansas legislators now have the opportunity to expand educational opportunity for families in their state. They should seize it.

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