Ensuring our children receive a quality education is one of the primary responsibilities of state government.
Look at our state's budget: Almost half of all general revenue the state collects funds K-12 education. Despite this robust investment, our educational outcomes still lag behind most other states. Arkansas typically ranks between 39th and 45th in public education among the 50 states, and only 41 percent of our third- through 10th-graders are reading at grade level.
Like most Arkansans, my wife and I attended Arkansas public schools. My son is a student in the Little Rock School District (LRSD) and my oldest daughter spent seven years in the LRSD. We all have a stake in public education and must drastically improve education in Arkansas. Governor Hutchinson and his administration have made important strides through the computer coding program and the Reading Initiative for Student Excellence initiative, but expanding school choice is the critical next step we must take in education.
My definition of school choice is simple: Parents, not the government, should choose where and how their children are educated. Whether it is a traditional public school, a charter school, a private school, or a homeschool, parents know best when it comes to their precious and unique children.
The status quo doesn't give parents many choices. The system is designed so that students attend the local school in the district in which they live. Imagine if you could only buy your groceries in the arbitrary district assigned to you. Want to shop at Walmart or Kroger? Too bad, there's not one of those in your district. We would reject this one-size-fits-all model if it were applied to any other area in our lives.
When parents have a choice, schools have to earn the business of their customers--parents and children. When FedEx and UPS compete for customers, the result is innovation, efficiency, and better delivery of services. Choice drives competition, competition drives innovation, and innovation leads to excellence. That healthy competition lifts the performance of all schools, including traditional public schools. Raising the bar and welcoming excellence, whatever its source, benefits everyone--schools, parents, teachers, and especially students.
According to the Arkansas Policy Foundation, nearly 28,000 Arkansas children currently attend charter schools. Another 20,500 attend private schools. Over 15,000 children take advantage of public school choice. And 19,500 children are homeschooled. That means approximately 83,000 Arkansas children are currently exercising a form of school choice.
Why are parents seeking choice? Some students are trapped in under-performing schools, and their families can't afford to move their residence. Other families have students with individualized needs, and schools like The Hannah School in Little Rock, which specializes in teaching students with dyslexia, are better equipped to meet them. Some are from military families and don't control where they live. Some face severe bullying or attend schools that are unsafe. Many desire the pedagogy used or values taught at a particular school. Given these and other reasons, it is not surprising that a recent poll found 74 percent of Arkansans surveyed said they believe children learn best when parents can customize an education to fit their individual needs.
A few years ago, the Legislature passed the Succeed Scholarship Program For Children, the state's first opportunity scholarship program tailored to children with disabilities. This program gives children a stipend so they can attend a private school that meets their individualized needs. Although the program is limited in scope, there are already many success stories. Legislators who supported the Succeed Scholarship Program, which passed unanimously in the state Senate and with 90 out of 100 votes in the state House, should naturally support expanding those scholarships beyond that small group of students to other students such as the sons and daughters of military personnel, foster children, or any child for that matter.
We must do a better job of expanding choice to all Arkansans. The wealthy already have choice. They can afford to live in neighborhoods that have the best school districts or pay to send their kids to private schools. We shouldn't begrudge them those options, but we should work to provide all families with that sort of choice. No child should be forced to attend a school that doesn't meet their needs simply because they were born in the wrong zip code.
Other states have been leading on choice for years. Florida began giving parents more choice 20 years ago through programs like the McKay Scholarship for students with disabilities and the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship Program. Today, Education Week ranks Florida's K-12 achievement as the fourth best in the nation even though its adjusted per pupil spending ranks 48th out of 50. We should learn from Florida's experience.
Opponents of choice, such as union bosses and some on the far left, oppose anything that upsets the status quo. They believe there is something inherently wrong about taxpayer money funding private schools, even though they don't object to giving taxpayer money to private insurance companies, non-profits, and private corporations. The foundational problem with all the anti-choice arguments is that they ask parents to set aside the best interests of their children today in hopes that decades down the road the system will improve for children yet to be born.
Improving education through school choice should not be a partisan issue. We should all be able to agree that every child deserves a quality education. Our kids come first--before politics, before unions, and before party label.
We have a limited amount of time to solve this problem. I'm not interested in the 100-year plan. A child in the fourth grade today will only get one chance at the fourth grade, and that's why we must act now. Many of our legislators understand this problem and will be working to address it during the current legislative session. If we succeed, all Arkansans will benefit.
Tim Griffin is lieutenant governor of Arkansas.
Editorial on 02/03/2019
Print Headline: Give families freedom to choose