Today's Paper News Sports Features Business Opinion LEARNS Guide Newsletters Obits Games Archive Notices Core Values


LEARNS to spark school competition by Robert Maranto Special to the Democrat-Gazette | September 15, 2023 at 4:01 a.m.

After the passage of Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders' LEARNS Act, I asked a public school leader what happens next. They said that just as the military fights on land, air, and sea, public schools would fight LEARNS's school-choice provisions in courts, elections, and by delaying the rules implementing the law.

As any Arkansas Democrat-Gazette reader knows, opponents have indeed fought LEARNS in court and referenda proposals. Battles over rulemaking are probably happening.

Courts, elections, and bureaucratic rulemaking offer legal, peaceful means of changing public policy--unlike burning police stations or storming capitols. I support my fellow Arkansans' constitutional right to fight state government.

Yet having a right doesn't mean being right. Public school leaders seek three ways to block school choice. I propose a fourth way--competing for parents--in four parts.

First, don't judge parents who leave your school. Public school insiders love their public schools, so they have trouble understanding parents who want something different. Many judge parents who exit as ignorant, even disloyal. Nationally, most male public school principals and superintendents are former athletic coaches. Many see public school critics (and our kids) as seriously flawed individuals, who if they just became team players would learn to love public school.

Instead, picture schooling as dating: Different people want different things. When a school leader complains that parents who choose another school (or homeschool) are bad parents, I think of that time back in 1979 when my girlfriend Gina dumped me and went back to her old boyfriend Tommy. When my friend Dana asked how I was doing, I boasted that I was fine because "Gina is the one who made a mistake--I was a way better boyfriend than Tommy." Dana retorted, "Sure you were, on everything you value in a boyfriend, but what about Gina?"

The lesson is that parents who dump your school for something else might be nice people who just want something different. Maybe they want a small school where everyone knows their kid's name. Maybe they want individualized instruction a la Montessori. Maybe they want rigorous academics. Study the competition. The Arkansas Department of Education can help by reporting how many parents from your school district applied for which charter-school lotteries or private options.

Second, decide whether you want to compete. Growing school districts might not mind if some parents exit, especially if the leavers are malcontents. In such cases, school choice can both manage growth and keep the peace.

Sometimes, even shrinking school districts find competing for parents not worth the trouble. What if the exiting parents want more academics and less stress on social and athletic activities, while others like things as they are? What if the exiting parents want classical education, or other curricula your teachers lack the knowledge or inclination to teach?

If you don't want to compete, don't pretend to. Instead, have the class to wish departing families well and say they are welcome back any time. Some will return if the grass isn't greener on the other side.

Third, consider creating new options within your school district. Many parents who leave district schools for charter schools want more challenging academics. When I served on the Fayetteville School Board, I assured parents that our Advanced Placement (AP) courses, which my kids took loads of, were as rigorous as anything at our cross-town charter-school rival, Haas Hall, which ranks as one of the best high schools in the country. (That said, Haas Hall does offer a small-school environment and we don't.)

Copying Fayetteville, Bentonville now has great AP courses. If they tried, most Arkansas school districts could develop solid AP options for students who need them. AP is like football: It's not for everybody, but it is important.

Northwest Arkansas school districts have also developed their own charter-school options. Fayetteville Virtual Academy, Springdale's Don Tyson School of Innovation, and Rogers New Tech High offer competition that makes everyone better.

Fourth, keep your house in order. Good school leaders solve problems that bad ones cover up. My survey research found that where many teachers distrusted their principals, more parents left for charter schools. To spot problematic leadership, survey your teachers and parents. Surveys must be anonymous and include space for comments.

Finally, ask parents and teachers how to compete. Their answers might surprise you.

Public schools will thrive under LEARNS, so long as they learn to compete.

Robert Maranto is the 21st Century Chair in Leadership in the Department of Education Reform at the University of Arkansas, where he writes scholarly books and articles so boring his own mother refused to read them. These opinions are his alone.

Print Headline: A fourth choice


Sponsor Content