Much has been written about education being the defining issue in this month's Virginia gubernatorial election between Democrat Terry McAuliffe and Republican Glenn Youngkin.
Youngkin, a businessman with no prior political experience, pulled off an upset that few saw coming in a state that has trended strongly toward the Democrats in recent years. He did so in large part by appealing to parents who are dissatisfied over the current state of public education.
Parents were upset by many factors, including the prolonged school closings, even as most of society has returned to some measure of pre-pandemic normal. They were upset that teachers' unions resisted a return to in-person instruction, even though students had experienced tremendous learning loss throughout the pandemic.
On top of that, many parents were disturbed by the injection of left-wing politics into their kids' education. The reported teaching of critical race theory and a letter from the National School Boards Association to President Biden essentially accusing concerned parents of being potential domestic terrorists only added fuel to the fire.
Virginia's recent elections are a strong reminder that states need to give parents more choices in education. In addition to their local traditional public schools, parents and children need the ability to choose an environment that meets their individual needs for a whole host of reasons (academic, values, bullying, learning disabilities, etc.).
In Arkansas, we've recently taken some small steps in the right direction. My colleagues and I recently passed a tax credit scholarship program to benefit low-income students whose parents can't afford the same educational options that wealthy families enjoy. Unfortunately, due to political opposition, this program was limited to about 200 students out of a statewide K-12 population of over 400,000.
For those 200 students, this program has life-changing potential. But what about the tens of thousands that may want to participate but won't be able to?
I also was the lead sponsor of Act 689, which makes the children of military families eligible for the Succeed Scholarship Program. This is a big win for our military families who face an altogether separate set of educational challenges, but this program is in need of additional funding as well. It is currently capped at just over 600 students, and demand for the program far outstrips the available scholarships.
As you can see, much more work remains.
Arkansas needs strong public schools. There's no doubt about that. But assigning children to a school based on their ZIP code is an antiquated model. It's time to move past the old way of doing things and embrace new ideas. Education isn't a one-size-fits-all model, and we need options that are as unique and varied as our children's needs.
For those who prefer a different model, it's important to have a myriad of options like public charters, homeschooling and private school choice. For example, Florida is one of the highest-performing states in the country for K-12 education, and they've had robust choice programs for over two decades now. We can have both strong public schools and give parents more options--it's not an either/or choice.
States around the country are waking up to the idea that parents, not the government, should be in charge of their children's education. Our Legislature needs to take notice of what's happening around the country. It's time to stop fighting over kids and start fighting for kids.
State Rep. David Ray represents District 40 in the Arkansas House of Representatives.