An editor of some note in these parts once told us to make a habit of taking on the opposition's strongest arguments, not its weakest ones. That's not always easy to do, especially if somebody serves up a hanging curve. But today we'll try. The subject is too important not to.
The governor and several lawmakers have backed a couple of bills that would give scholarships to several hundred poor kids in (and outside) Pulaski County, all so they can pay for private schooling. The particulars are these, no opinion needed: Senate Bill 620 by state Sen. Blake Johnson would create a pilot program for five years that would use $3.5 million in discretionary funds from the governor's office to send about 500 kids to private schools. The kids would have to be among those who get free or reduced lunches, which is one way to measure wealth, or the lack of it. If this voucher program is successful, the Legislature may want to expand it in the future. Another bill, SB539, would extend a similar voucher system outside the state's biggest county, and folks could contribute to those scholarships and give those donors dollar-for-dollar income-tax credits.
Everybody agrees to that much. And at this point, agreement stops and finger-pointing begins.
Those who like the idea(s), including the governor, say private vouchers are one more way to provide choice to families that would like it. Or, as state Rep. Ken Bragg told the papers: "I think the public school system is the backbone of our education system. I'm an advocate--a strong advocate--for public schools. I'm an advocate of charter schools. I'm an advocate of private schools. I'm an advocate of home school. We need choices. One type of education structure cannot meet the need of every child."
However, the opposition, as you might expect, opposes.
Let's see if we can fairly break down the arguments agin:
• First, money. It's first. It always is. Those who don't like vouchers for private education say such ideas take money out of the traditional public school system. But isn't that the main argument against public charter schools, too? The public school teachers' unions and their allies have argued for years that charters "take money away" from their classrooms. But they never mention that for every child that moves to a charter school (or a private school), that's money not needed to educate the child at their schools. If either of these voucher bills passes and 500 kids get scholarships to go elsewhere, that's 500 textbooks that won't need to be bought by the school district, 500 kids who won't need transportation, and 500 kids who won't need to go on the next field trip.
But, having said that, SB620 includes a provision that any Pulaski County school district under state control (read: Little Rock's) won't have its state funding reduced as a result of these kids going elsewhere. Sure, if Little Rock's school district is released from state control by next year, that won't apply. But this bill wouldn't kick the district while it's down.
• A couple of lawmakers who've been teachers over the years held a press conference to challenge the voucher idea. State Sen. Joyce Elliott (D-Little Rock) said she opposes picking a few kids from minority groups for a "social experiment." Or as she said of the Pulaski County bill: "The bill says low-income students, but you'd have to be on another planet to not know what that means in practice."
Yes, by Jove, we think she's got it. Black and brown kids. Minority kids. From the most challenging parts of the state's largest county. Some 500 of them would be given a great opportunity. This is a "social experiment" much like getting a scholarship to college is a "social experiment."
Teachers, even former teachers, might fight any voucher system, no matter how it might help those receiving the vouchers. But as Upton Sinclair once noted, it's difficult to get someone to understand something when their salary depends on not understanding it.
• The constitution of the state of Arkansas demands an equitable education for all children, so why allow a few hundred to escape failing schools?
Interesting argument. But why make the perfect the enemy of the good? The state is struggling to find the right mix of schools to make certain all kids are educated. Some will do better in traditional schools, some at home, some at charters, etc. This bill would simply add one more option.
We wish those making this last argument would be more sincere, and say what they really mean: The state of Arkansas should spend more money on traditional schools. And if that doesn't work, spend even more. This state already spends northward of $4 billion a year on public education, but it might need to spend $5 billion. Or $10 billion.
So what if the state has been steadily spending more and more on education--overall, per student, adjusted for inflation, you name it--for generations? That method has given us failing schools all around Little Rock, and in other districts too, but maybe We the People just haven't hit the magic number yet. And, truth be told, might never hit it.
If teachers at some of these schools are what the state calls "chronically absent," and the districts are paying millions for substitutes to serve as live bodies in their absence, and a lot of the students aren't showing up anyway, and principals can't get rid of deadwood, and another generation is being lost to the street, taxpayers (and parents) should just keep on keeping on, only with more money. And leave innovation to businessmen and farmers.
Some of us can't make those arguments. We have to sleep at night.
Pass these bills. And see if they work.
Editorial on 03/31/2019
Print Headline: Putting on the blitz