Can Arkansas lead the nation in school choice?

Introducing … HB 1897
Can Arkansas lead the nation in school choice?
By The Arkansas Democrat-Gazette-March 23, 2013

“It is one of the happy incidents of the federal system that a single courageous state may, if its citizens choose, serve as a laboratory; and try novel social and economic experiments without risk to the rest of the country.’’

-Mr. Justice Brandeis, 1932 THERE’S been a lot of ink used in the last month reporting about school choice and what this session of the state Legislature might do to encourage it. Just last Sunday, the in-depth story anchoring Page 1 in Arkansas’ Newspaper was about school choice this, school choice that. Thank you, news side and Sarah D. Wire.

What, wasn’t the Arkansas School Choice Act of 1989 enough to makestudents and their moms and dads happy? (It allows students to transfer out of their district as long as such a transfer doesn’t affect desegregation.) But now all kinds of questions aboutthat act begin to arise:

Are too many white kids transferring out of their school districts, and not enough black and Hispanic students?

Instead of race, should the percentage of students on free and reduced lunches be the determining factor that allows-or disallows-students to transfer from one school district to another?

After all the bills are filed and votes taken and democracy practiced, will the Eighth U.S. Circuit of Appeals throw all of it out, or none of it, or part of it, or what? (There’s a federal lawsuit pending. Isn’t there always?)

This is all more than the usual sausage-making that’s often used as a metaphor for legislation. This is more like Cajun-style blood boudin.

One bill that’s slowly winding its way through this legislative session, House Bill 1897, does sound promising-if the Legislature will take it seriously. Unfortunately, this bill hasn’t got the coverage some of the others have received.

But that can be rectified.

So here goes: RANDY ALEXANDER is a state representative from Northwest Arkansas, specifically Fayetteville. He has filed a proposal styled House Bill 1897, and it deals with school choice. And how. Mr. Alexander’s bill would start with the money used to educate each student in Arkansas public schools, then let parents decide where most of it is spent.

It would go like this: Now the state gives each school district $6,267 a student to pay the light bills, buy volleyball nets, invest in computers, replace wornout books and so educationally on. HB 1897 would allow parents to direct most of that money to a public school not necessarily in their school zone. Or even a private one. And if tuition at that chosen school costs more than that? The remainder would be up to Mom and Dad to raise.

You might really like the public school down the road a ways, the one your cousin sends her kids to. The one with a French program and that principal who just transferred there. Under this proposed law, Papa and Mama could choose to send Junior-and the state money that follows him-to sucha school, even if it’s not the school in his neighborhood. Or maybe there’s a start-up charter that sounds interesting in the next town over. Or maybe you, Loving Parent, are perfectly happy with the school your kid attends now. In that case, you wouldn’t have to do a thing. The taxpayers’ money would still follow your child.

But if you so choose-there’s that word again-you could direct your kid, and most of the state money that goes with him, to any accredited school you want.

But here’s what’s sure to happen if this bill comes anywhere near being passed into law: You’ll hear the bureaucrats at your school district’s main offices screaming bloody massacre of publiceducation. That tends to happen when there’s any chance of tax money being used to broaden kids’ educational choices instead of being confined to the same old schools.

Just look at how school boards and their superintendents rear up whenever a charter school is proposed in their town. Many of them act as though the state’s education dollars are a jobs program for teachers and staffs and administrators. Can we have lost sight of something here? Like the students and the best way to educate them?

Somebody said that HB 1897, if passed, would be one of the most comprehensive school-choice laws in the country. We like the sound of that. And not only because it makes the leaders of teachers’ unions apoplectic. (Although that’s always fun.) But because it introduces greater competition, that is, more choice, and maybe even better education to what, after all, is supposed to be an educational system.

WHAT THIS state needs-among a lot of other things-is not just a to-do list for reformers, and more ideas to throw around, or another conference to Propose Viewpoints. (You know, one of those confabs that come complete with a “facilitator” who’s supposed to write them all down on butcher paper and then tape the sheets to the walls all around the room.) No, what this state needs are reforms that are more than just talk. Action speaks louder. Action like real school choice, not just the idea of school choice. The kind of action HB 1897 might provide.

By all means, traditional public schools would be welcome to compete for the dollars that HB 1897 would redistribute. Come one, come all. Build your better mousetrap and watch education dollars beat a path to your schoolhouse door. Not to mention improving the education of thousands of children.

But do we have a Legislature that can provide real reform in education? A reform daring enough to serve as an example for the other 49 states? We may be about to see. Even a pilot program just to test the idea would be welcome at this point.

Wanted: Lawmakers and a governor who dare support an experiment like HB 1897, which would give our kids the most comprehensive school-choice program in the country. No, trying to provide more school choice won’t be easy. Good things seldom are.”