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Achievement gap is solvable by Mavuto Kalulu Special to the Democrat-Gazette | September 28, 2015 at 3:35 a.m.

There is something fundamentally wrong with Arkansas' K-12 public education system that needs to be fixed.

The Arkansas Democrat-Gazette reports that since 2008 the state has spent over $1 billion to fix the achievement gap for economically disadvantaged students. Yet the gap remains the same. This is disturbing.

Reducing the achievement gap is not only important for Arkansans, but a state Supreme Court ruling actually requires it. The Bureau of Legislative Research studied the 28 different programs designed to reduce the gap, but their research did not find any correlation between the programs and the achievement gap. More funding is, therefore, not the solution to the problem.

What hope do parents of disadvantaged children have for their children if 1 billion dollars does not narrow the achievement gap? A solution needs to be found, and quickly.

Staying the course will result in another $210 million of the taxpayers' money spent on activities with bad outcomes. That's unfair to taxpayers, parents, and especially children. Even our local businesses want better K-12 education.

The education commissioner has his prescription, saying that his department has little input on how local districts spend state money, implicitly suggesting that we need more state intervention in order to solve the problem. The solution is echoed by Sen. Alan Clark, who suggests that "we have to move other bureaucracy and even local control out of the way."

While we would agree that there is a need to reduce the bureaucracy in Arkansas education, we offer an alternative way to narrow the education gap.

Instead of a top-down government solution, we propose that Arkansas try bottom-up grass-roots control. The top-down management style that the education commissioner suggests works well with commodities as in fast-food franchises. But, unlike commodities, our children are unique.

Arkansas should introduce a system that affords learning flexibility for our children, especially the ones that are at a disadvantage.

Charter schools are one alternative and the state does offer that option. However, in addition to charter schools, we propose the introduction of an education voucher system. Through the voucher system, economically disadvantaged parents could send their children to a public or private school of their choice using the money the state already allocates for the student. A voucher system is a way for parents and teachers to cooperate and figure out how to help each student achieve.

The fear of losing students to private schools has the potential of incentivizing poor-performing schools to perform better. Parents would not have to send their children to a cookie-cutter program, but instead they could send their child to the school that fits their child best.

Charter schools have five years to perform or lose their charter. Similarly, a private school that is not performing to the satisfaction of the parents will lose its students and will shut down. It has an incentive to perform.

So far the state has shown a willingness to experiment with a billion dollars, yet our legislators have shown an unwillingness to try alternative solutions to our failing system. In the 2015 regular session, the Legislature failed to pass a bill that would have introduced an education voucher system in Arkansas.

It is not impossible to help disadvantaged students. New Orleans post-Katrina has a mix of charter schools and a voucher system that allows disadvantaged students to attend private schools. A study by Data Center Research finds that historically undeserved students are graduating at a higher rate than their respective state cohort.

The KIPP schools in Helena also work well.

The achievement-gap problem is solvable. It is not an easy problem, but it is solvable. Letting parents decide the best place for their children is an important way to do this.

It is hard to think of a more important issue.

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Mavuto Kalulu is a research associate at the Arkansas Center for Research in Economics (ACRE) at the University of Central Arkansas in Conway.

Editorial on 09/28/2015

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