OPINION | GREG KAZA: Market growing

School-choice enrollment doubled

Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders and state legislators have developed an ambitious reform package to empower students and families, incentivize teachers, and provide an adequate, equitable and efficient education system, as required by legal decisions and the Arkansas Constitution.

Sanders' LEARNS plan emphasizes literacy, empowerment, accountability, readiness, networking, and safety. State legislators in the House are considering the proposal in an omnibus bill, passed last week in the Senate, encompassing a broad range of educational issues.

Critics question the school choice component of the governor's plan, which would empower families to send their children to a public, private, parochial or home school via an education savings account. They ignore the research of our nonprofit, the Arkansas Policy Foundation, that shows the Arkansas K-12 school-choice market encompasses nearly 110,000 students in the 2022-23 school year, according to state Department of Education and other records.

Records show the market has nearly doubled in the last decade, and includes charter, home, and private school students, along with those enrolled in a public school-choice program.

School choice has advanced as an idea in Arkansas since the mid-1990s.

In our nonprofit's 1996 study, analysts Allyson Tucker and Donna Watson noted charters--a type of public school--faced anti-competitive barriers to entry. State senators Jim Argue, a Little Rock Democrat, and John Brown III, a Siloam Springs Republican, wrote Act 890 of 1999, which created less restrictive procedures that led to Arkansas' first charter school. The law was expanded by subsequent legislatures.

Charters are the largest school-choice market component. Department records show charter enrollment totals 41,300, with 24,772 in open-enrollment schools and 16,528 in conversion charters.

An open-enrollment charter is operated by "a governmental entity, an institution of higher learning or a tax-exempt non-sectarian organization," according to the education department.

A conversion school "is a public school converted to a public charter school. Conversion schools can only draw students from within the school district's boundaries," the department notes.

Home schools are the second largest group, numbering 26,378 students, department records show.

Another 22,073 "are currently enrolled in a traditional public school district via school choice" this school year, a department communication explains. The program allows students to transfer to another public school district.

Private school enrollment is 19,932, records from the nonprofit Arkansas Nonpublic School Accrediting Association show.

Policymakers cite dissatisfaction with public schools deemed "failing" in letter-grade surveys, with some legislators proposing students in those rated "F" receive the first education savings accounts.

An unreported development is the school choice market's growth in Arkansas counties with the highest concentration of public companies.

A skilled workforce is an economic development factor with bearing on employment and income growth. A monopoly educational structure with roots in the 19th century does not benefit 21st century consumers, whether students and families, or employers and entrepreneurs.

The Arkansas school-choice market's growth is a reminder that families are seeking educational options for their children.

Economist Greg Kaza is executive director of the Arkansas Policy Foundation, a nonprofit think tank founded in 1995 in Little Rock.