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OPINION | PATRICK J. WOLF: Expand choice

Give parents more school options by PATRICK J. WOLF SPECIAL TO THE DEMOCRAT-GAZETTE | February 11, 2021 at 2:54 a.m.

Recently we celebrated National School Choice Week. The event focuses our attention on the many ways that parents can customize their child's education to fit their particular needs, including district-led schooling options, public charter schools, private schooling, and homeschooling.

The covid pandemic restricted the activities of National School Choice Week to virtual events. It also highlighted the need for parents to have choice and flexibility in their schooling decisions. One size doesn't fit all, especially regarding the education of children during a global health crisis. Parents need educational options.

I study school-choice programs. The evidence of their effectiveness is strong. The 19 most rigorous scientific studies of private school-choice programs find that they tend to have positive effects on student achievement, especially several years after students have entered a private school of their parents' choosing. The evidence is even stronger that choice programs increase the chances of a student graduating from high school, attending college, and receiving a college degree.

Recent research I conducted with Corey A. DeAngelis finds that private school-choice initiatives improve the character outcomes of young people by reducing the chances they will commit crimes or be a party to a paternity suit. All these studies carefully controlled for student and family background factors in their analyses.

Public school-choice policies also produce positive outcomes. Public charter schools tend to boost student achievement, especially for disadvantaged students and in cities. Increased public school options produce competitive pressure, generating a rising tide of student achievement that lifts all boats.

Given the wealth of evidence supporting the benefits of school choice, you would think that Arkansas would have a lot of it. Sadly, you would be wrong.

Our state does have a school-choice program that allows about 13,000 students to attend public schools outside their district of residence. Arkansas has 55 public charter schools, but only 24 of them are open-enrollment charters that enroll 23,000 students regardless of residential boundaries. Our state's only private school-choice initiative, the Succeed Scholarship Program, is strictly limited to students with disabilities and enrolled just 427 students in 2019-20. We have over 473,000 K-12 students in Arkansas.

It is wonderful that the parents of 427 Arkansas students receive assistance from our state so that they can select a private school that serves their special needs. Still, more children could benefit from private school choice. Twenty-six states plus the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico have private school-choice programs that serve more students than our Succeed Scholarship Program.

It is time for Arkansas to join its neighboring states of Louisiana, Oklahoma, and Tennessee in extending private school-choice opportunities to more families.

Rep. Ken Bragg and Sen. Jonathan Dismang are the lead authors of a bill to expand private school choice in our state. House Bill 1371 is titled the Arkansas Child Academic Opportunity Scholarship and Grant Act. It would create two new education programs, each supported by state tax credits.

One program would provide up to $4 million annually for private school choice. The other program would provide up to $6 million a year in extra funding to public school districts that have a large proportion of low-income students enrolled.

The Arkansas Child Academic Opportunity Scholarship Program has several ideal design features. It is funded through dollar-for-dollar tax credits provided to individuals and companies that donate generously to nonprofit organizations providing scholarships to students. Scholarships are capped at the state amount of per-pupil funding, around $7,000, so our state government will save as much in reduced education spending as it loses in tax revenue. The scholarships take the form of Education Savings Accounts that have the flexibility to allow parents to use them for private school tuition, specialized courses in public schools, tutoring, and educational materials, therapies, and activities. Children in low-income and working-class families will be eligible.

If this new program passes, an additional 571 Arkansas children will have private school choice. That is 0.1% of our K-12 students. Still, it would be an improvement. HB1371 would provide more educational opportunities and resources to needy children in both public and private schools throughout the Natural State.

That is something all Arkansans should support.

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Patrick J. Wolf, Ph.D., is a Distinguished Professor of Education Policy at the University of Arkansas in Fayetteville. The opinions expressed here are his own.

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