For some, school choice carries a negative connotation. It conjures images of students leaving traditional public schools and using taxpayer money to enroll in charter or private schools. This common misconception may keep some from celebrating National School Choice Week, which started Sunday and ends Saturday.
But it should not be this way. True school choice is not unidirectional.
Traditional public schools are one of many options that students and their families have to choose from. If charter or private schools are not performing well, students should have the choice to attend traditional public schools that are performing better. If parents want their children to participate in sports such as football and a charter school does not offer such, parents should be able to enroll their children in a traditional public school without compromising their children's academic achievement.
The beauty of school choice is that students are not restricted to schools that are not performing well. Students from schools that are performing poorly have the opportunity to transfer to schools that are performing better. The fear of losing students should be an incentive for all schools to provide a better education in order to retain their students or, better yet, attract more students.
It is this very freedom to choose that will lead teachers and administrators in all forms of education to be innovative in the way they educate Arkansas' children. Because money follows the student, schools are forced to compete for student enrollment. This competition, in turn, causes schools of all types to be more responsive to the educational needs of the children.
A study in Texas by Kevin Booker, Scott Gilpatric, Timothy Gronberg and Dennis Jansen examined the effect of charter schools on student performance in traditional public schools. The researchers found higher test scores for traditional public school students when traditional public schools faced competition from charter schools. Similarly, a forthcoming study by the Arkansas Center for Research in Economics examines how the entry of open-enrollment charter schools affects the performance of school districts in Arkansas. The results show that traditional public schools that face higher levels of competition from open-enrollment charter schools experience improved test scores.
The Arkansas Legislature should be applauded for fostering competition in the public schools not only through charter options but even among traditional public school districts. Through the Public School Choice Act of 2015, students in Arkansas can transfer from one school to another, both within and outside the district of residence. Even though there is currently a cap on the number of transfers a school district can accept, it is a good opportunity for public schools to compete among themselves to provide a quality education.
Statewide, in 2016-17 school year 13,633 students are benefiting from the choice of being able to enroll in traditional public schools other than their assigned residential public school, while magnet schools enroll 15,605 students. Charter schools and private schools enroll 24,093 and 20,028 students, respectively. The most current data from the Arkansas Department of Education shows that in 2015-16 school year, 19,229 students were home-schooled.
In addition to the choices above, Arkansas expanded the school-choice options by introducing the Succeed Scholarship program, which started in the 2016-17 school year. The Succeed Scholarship program allows special-needs students to enroll in private schools using public funds.
While currently not every parent is able to enroll their child in a school of their choice, Arkansans should still join the rest of the nation in celebrating the existing options.
It is the duty of the Legislature to ensure that the right of parents to choose a school for their children is extended to all Arkansas parents. When parents can enroll their children in a school that fits their children's educational needs, that child benefits, as do children at the other schools who vie for students.
The children deserve it.
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 01/27/2017