CITIZENSHIP ADVANCES SCHOOL CHOICE
The most callused aspect of the current education monopoly in Arkansas is that it willingly and deliberately forces children--except those whose parents have wealth--to attend bad schools. And it does so with financial resources taken from parents already struggling financially and at the expense of their ability to choose a better school for their sons and daughters.” Policy Foundation report, September 1998
(June 2016) School choice gives students the freedom to attend schools or obtain educational services that best fit their individual and family needs. These can include public, private or home-schools depending on the circumstance. School choice has advanced to a significant degree since the Policy Foundation raised the issue in 1995. The citizenship of Arkansans has advanced school choice, with foundations playing a key leadership role.
The Mid-1990s Policy Climate
The mid-1990s policy climate in Arkansas was largely hostile to school choice at the K-12 level.1 Options such as private schools existed for some parents and guardians but state regulatory overreach in the 1980s was a recent memory. The right of parents to home-school was also questioned. Charters are non-traditional public schools. They did not exist in Arkansas, though congressional Republicans and the Clinton administration reached an accord on the issue. The Policy Foundation was the first Arkansas research organization to publish a study on charter schools.2 The first Arkansas charter opened later in the decade, and state Department of Education records show 52 conversion and open-enrollment charters today.3
The Early 21st Century: School Choice Breakthrough
The U.S. Supreme Court, in June 2002, upheld the constitutionality of Cleveland, Ohio's school choice program in Zelman v. Simmons-Harris. The ruling removed the U.S. Constitution from the legal arsenal of school choice opponents.4 The Policy Foundation hailed the ruling in its media response.
The ruling made it possible for school choice to advance in other states. Only eight states had school choice programs at the turn of the century. That number increased to 30 by 2016.5 Last year, Arkansas became the 25th or "tipping point" state to adopt school choice after the Succeed Scholarship program was enacted.6 The program provides a voucher for up to 100 students to attend "a private school of choice."7 The program is available for students with disabilities and the children of active-duty military.
The Role Of Citizenship
School choice's advance in Arkansas did not occur by accident. It occurred because a small group of private individuals and foundations worked to advance the idea that students deserve the education that fits their needs.
The Policy Foundation is part of this process8 but there are other groups that have played key roles advancing school choice. One is the Arkansans for Education Reform Foundation,9 a group of business leaders committed to advancing accountability and transparency within the K-12 education system. The group's activities seek to advance "substantive reform to improve educational outcomes for Arkansas children." The group has worked tirelessly and led on charter schools, a school choice niche market.
Another is the Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice, which has worked with the Foundation for 10 years to educate citizens about school choice by staging an annual event in July for parents, guardians and students. Dr. Milton Friedman (1912-2006) was the 1976 Nobel Economics Laureate. He advanced school choice with his wife, Rose (1938-2009).
Citizens interested in the issue should contact the Policy Foundation.
1 Arkansas college and university students have school choice. They can choose to attend public or private schools.
2 "Arkansas' Weak Charter School Law: Failing The Grade," by Allyson Tucker and Donna Watson (1996)
5 Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice, edchoice.org
6 "School Choice Reaches A Tipping Point," National Review Online, May 14, 2015
7 "Arkansas' First Private School Choice Program" (Policy Foundation research memo) March 2015
8 The Policy Foundation has published research memos on school choice for more than a decade.