OPINION | DANA KELLEY: Give choice a chance

Arkansas has a reputation (arguably well-deserved) for being backward, particularly on education. That changed Wednesday, when Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders signed her unflinchingly bold, truly reformational LEARNS Act into law.

The bulk of the legislation is popular: starting salaries for teachers that ranks Arkansas fourth nationally; designated diplomas for high school career training; bonuses and incentives for high-performing educators; literacy-coach funding for families; school safety improvements; and increased student-loan repayments for teachers.

But a stubborn spirit of backwardness still persists regarding its school-choice provision, which will create Education Freedom Accounts enabling parents to have state education funds follow their children to any school of their choosing: public, charter, private or home-school.

School choice has been one of education's most popular reforms, notably among minorities, in nationwide surveys since before the millennium. A 1998 study by a Black-oriented think tank showed that Black support of vouchers was 10 points higher than white support.

Ever since, support for school choice has continued to expand repeatedly in surveys, and has grown most among Blacks and other minorities. A 2019 Cato Institute survey indicated overwhelming support among Blacks and low-income families. A February 2021 survey of African American parents found 84 percent supported education savings accounts for private school tuition. An EdChoice survey published two months later echoed those findings.

Florida's voucher program is the largest in the country, and a 2020 National Bureau of Economic Research study "explored the massive scale-up" of Florida's private school-choice program.

Using an extraordinarily rich dataset of 1.2 million unique students over the course of 14 years, its findings included demonstrable benefits of "higher standardized test scores and lower absenteeism and suspension rates."

The kicker, though: "Effects are particularly pronounced for lower-income students." That's significant because they are the ones left out of most of the school choice/voucher opposition arguments.

Here is the oft-ignored truth they understand so well, and have suffered under so long: There has always been school choice--just not for them.

The use of geographic districts to determine public school assignment has a built-in bias toward those who can afford to relocate most effortlessly. Families with enough income never have to tolerate bad schools.

For families with means, if a district refuses to redress grievances about the learning environment, or can't maintain discipline to teach, and denies a student transfer--so what? They just move to another district, or choose private school. They exercise school choice freely and easily.

Lower-income families, many of them Black, are simply stuck. Their children remain mired in schools that won't release them and, worse yet, berate them for "abandoning public education" if they want vouchers that might give them the same choice as their better-off neighbors.

There are districts where test scores for reading and math are absolutely abysmal. Where the average proficiency percentage is in single digits (the state average is about 36 percent proficient).

That should not be acceptable--yet that's exactly what it has become. Imagine spending $140,000 to teach each individual student over 13 years (on a multimillion-dollar campus), only to produce a graduating class in which 90-something percent cannot read or do math proficiently.

Assuming 50 graduates (for easy math), that's a state education investment of $7 million to produce five proficient students. And it's exponentially worse when applied across the state's multitude of children trapped in similar-scoring schools.

To defend the status quo regarding school choice in those schools is the opposite of putting students first.

We must all remember that the entire purpose of the state education apparatus is learning by students. It's not to buy property, build classrooms, create jobs for teachers, operate buses, field sports teams, etc.

Those things form the structure for education, and the state has had decades to improve schools where students clearly aren't learning. But--and this isn't personal to those within a bureaucracy--the instinctive resistance to change is never greater than when cocooned by organizational inertia. The system fences itself in, and locks solutions out, with too many immutable procedures. It develops blind-eye dogma about the fantasy that large-scale transformation will magically materialize from incremental tweaks.

When classes of students graduate from schools where the reading proficiency is 6 or 8 percent, the state is literally subsidizing ignorance and an utter lack of learning. Illiteracy is a curse in a free society, and handing nine out of 10 young adults a diploma without having taught them to read is an education disgrace. Where entrenched, that dynamic won't change without drastic measures.

Instead of LEARNS, I wish the governor had named her legislative package STUDENTS FIRST. That's the page we all need to get on. That's the touchstone.

Anything that improves student learning should be supported, regardless of its lethal consequences to sacred cows. And anything that hinders student learning should be chucked, phased out or overhauled, period. For too long, we've failed too many poorer students and families in too many schools. Those patrons have said repeatedly they want school choice and vouchers.

For all those reasons, and for those kids, LEARNS is a well-conceived effort that deserves a try.

Dana D. Kelley is a freelance writer from Jonesboro.

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