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School choice detractors, advocates come to head over Arkansas education bill

Education Policy
Lorenzo Gritti
Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders' education package brings up a long-held discussion about the role of tax dollars in public education.

Governor Sarah Huckabee Sanders’ omnibus education bill continues to make its way through the Arkansas Legislature this week.

The bill would create new “education freedom accounts,” or public money parents can use to enroll their children in private, parochial, or charter schools. The debate on the future of education in Arkansas hinges largely on where to spend taxpayer dollars, and what public schools should look like.

After spending twenty years advocating for choice-based education policy, Laurie Lee feels like she has climbed a mountain.

“And I can't wait for two, three, four years from now,” she said “Where we see this as the turning point where Arkansas went from 48th to second or first.”

Lee is the chairman of The Reform Alliance, an advocacy group that consulted with Gov. Sanders on the bill. Her group previously worked with the legislature to create the “Succeed Scholarship,” a program that gives parents of special needs children $7,000 to attend a private school approved by the group.

The governor's dense piece of wide-sweeping legislation includes a similar provision. Millions of dollars would go to families wishing to enroll their children in private schools, starting first with financially needy families and then spreading out to all Arkansans. Using public dollars for private school tuition is also commonly known as “school choice.”

Lee and proponents say it helps to make education more open to everyone. By giving families money, students can choose an education style to fit their needs regardless of income.

“All the Smiths in the state of Arkansas will have the same ability that the Hutchinson family has had for decades to find a private school or a public school or whatever they want for their kid,” Lee said.

Lee, who has sent her own children to private, public and charter schools, says in a perfect world everyone would have access to money through school choice programs. But these policies have knocked against the values of people like Ali Noland, an attorney and a member of the Little Rock School Board.

“When we talk about school choice, talk about vouchers, ultimately we are talking about a transfer of state education dollars to schools that hand-select who can and can not attend,” she said.

Noland said she likes the infrastructure that's baked into the public education system— school districts are required to accept everyone, including LGBTQ students and kids with learning differences. They have to provide transportation along with free and reduced lunch. Teachers must be accredited and students must take state tests.

But, school choice advocate Laurie Lee thinks the fact that private, public and parochial schools service different needs is a feature, not a bug.

“I would say that’s fantastic,” Lee explained. “I don't want public schools to have to accept children that they can't service.”

Opponents and supporters of school choice have a fundamental philosophical disagreement about the way the government should spend money. Noland, who is opposed to school choice policies, says she’s not against people choosing to send their children to a different school. She thinks public money should go to public services.

“When you own a car or something like that, that is a similar choice,” she said. “But nobody is saying: 'Hey, state legislature. I think my car is better than that bus, so you should give me some money.’”

But, Laurie Lee disagrees.

“First of all it's not their money, it's the money the state allocates to educate our children,” she says. “So are we more interested in public education or are we more interested in educating the public?”

UA Little Rock history professor Jim Ross was a public educator and briefly served on the Little Rock School Board before a state takeover in 2015. He says school choice plans got their start in Arkansas in the wake of the 1957 desegregation crisis at Little Rock Central High School. Members of the school board created attendance zones for high schools, and allowed students to transfer if they found themselves assigned to a school with a majority Black student body.

“So the choice was actually a limited choice,” he said.

Ross says he’s worried this pattern may echo in the current school choice movement. In his mind, the state could face a situation where there simply aren't enough slots in private schools for all the children that want them. That, he says, could lead to public schools having to do more with less.

“So it's now moved from more skin tone based race to more of a class privilege to be able to go out of these schools,” he said. “Public schools are getting students that are harder to educate.”

Teachers from around the state echo Ross’s sentiment, and call for more special education teachers in their schools; a problem that isn't addressed in the governor's education package as it stands now.

Megan Prettyman, who teaches at Little Rock West High School of Innovation, has noticed an influx in the number of her students who require individualized learning plans, or 504s.

“As a public school teacher, if you need an accommodation, legally I can't say we don't have the resources to do that,” she said. “The school has to find a way to make that happen for you as a student. It's required by federal law, as it should be,” she said.

Private and charter schools don't have to accept students who can't speak English, have learning challenges, or have low test scores. The governor's education package does create 120 new reading coach positions to send across Arkansas who are required to be trained in dyslexia and the science of reading.

Existing school choice programs like the Succeed Scholarship help students go to non-public schools that offer special education, but Laurie Lee says they often contract teachers out from public schools.

But the lack of specific mandates for special education services at private and charter schools makes many anti-school choice advocates nervous. The fear is that money could be leaving schools filled with students who need specialized services and can't get an education anywhere else.

“We could get to a point where... it's majority severe behavior problems, they have an IEP, they have a 504. They have something which makes teaching this child more difficult,” Prettyman said.

Laurie Lee points out that Arkansas consistently falls in the lowest rankings nationwide for test scores and literacy. She thinks the public schools in the state are failing, but that American education can be solved by the free market.

“Do you think there's going to be a private school where enough parents will say, 'I want my child's foundational belief to be [that] you should wear Burt's Bees chapstick?’ It will fail,” Lee said.

She acknowledges that the legislation is bound to have “growing pains” as accounts funding school choice programs swell and the provisions in the bill expand. But ultimately, Lee says school choice will be good for parents, teachers, and families.

She says parents should have the freedom to choose where their kids go to school, even if ultimately it’s detrimental in the long run.

“If you teach kids that the sky is purple then you know what's going to happen if they hit the adult world,” she asked. “They're not going to be able to flourish, but I can't help that.”

The education package championed by Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders gained approval from the Senate last week and now moves to a House committee for a vote.

Josie Lenora is the Politics/Government Reporter for UA Little Rock Public Radio.