School choice push revs up in Arkansas

Laurie Lee

One of Arkansas’s top school choice advocates, Laurie Lee, is on the road this month in her home state, visiting 28 cities in four weeks to spread the gospel of education reform.

Arkansas ranked No. 5 among states in an Education Week report that gave it a B- overall. The national average was a C.

But look closer at the findings, said Lee in a phone interview, as she headed toward Mountain View. Arkansas netted a D for its K-12 achievement. Its graduation rate is 70 percent. And of those students who do graduate, 18 percent aren’t ready for college coursework, Lee said.

“Overall, our state’s economy is waning,’’ she said. “We’re losing jobs and foreclosure is high. And you can tie it all back to education.’’

That’s what led Lee to organize The Arkansas Reform Alliance or TARA, a grassroots nonprofit coalition that represents parents, educators and community leaders who want to increase school accountability and improve student success.

Expanding school choice is high on its list.

“We need more options,’’ said Lee, the alliance’s executive director. Her daughters were enrolled in public schools before she switched them to private, virtual and home education in search of the best fit.

Arkansas is home to 18 open enrollment charter schools and 14 district-conversion charter schools, public schools that were converted into charter schools, according to the state Department of Education website.

But to Lee’s group and others, that’s nowhere near enough. They want fewer restrictions on public school transfers. They want more charter and virtual programs. And they want tax-credit scholarships and vouchers.

“I’m not sure what all the choices will look like,’’ said Lee, who also works as a political consultant.

But when she thinks about the mom she met recently in south Arkansas whose daughter was failing middle school English, Lee understands how desperate some parents get. The mother works in a factory and, like a lot of parents, can’t afford private school. She feels stuck – something no parent should accept, said Lee.

Among TARA’s goals:

  • Creation of inter-district transfers – so parents can send their children to any school they want regardless of boundaries.
  • Moving charter school oversight from the local school district and the state Department of Education, where there could be a conflict of interest, to an independent committee.
  • Addition of more distance learning opportunities, including a lift on the enrollment cap for students in Arkansas’s Virtual Academy.

TARA isn’t out to get public education, school districts or teachers, Lee said. The group just wants more opportunities for parents to decide what’s best for their children.

 “We have some really great public schools in Arkansas and some really horrible ones ,’’ she said.

That’s not to say there aren’t bad charter schools in Arkansas, too, Lee added. The difference, she said, is bad charter schools are shut down. Public schools often linger on intervention lists for years.

It’s a charter school, Haas Hall Academy in Fayetteville, which is ranked No. 1 in the state in U.S. News & World Report’s 2012 report. The school comes in nationally at No. 353.

Also on the state’s top 10 was No. 2-ranked KIPP Delta Collegiate High School, another charter, followed by eight traditional public schools.

Lee is working with other well-known advocates in education reform, including fellow Arkansan Virginia Walden Ford, who successfully championed the Opportunities Scholarship Program in Washington, D.C.

Ford, a Little Rock native and daughter and sister of longtime public school educators (her father was the first black assistant superintendent in the Little Rock school district) started the Arkansas Parent Network in January to teach parents to advocate for their children.

“Often times, parents don’t know they have a right to advocate for their children,’’ she said.

Ford calls the alliance, which includes Gary Newton of Arkansas Learns  and Michele Linch of the Arkansas State Teachers Association (which is not a teachers union), a “natural partnership’’ among business and civic leaders, parents and teachers.

The group’s priority is making sure parents and students have plenty of choices – from attending the public school they want to receiving vouchers for private schools.

In Arkansas, there is resistance to such reforms, Ford said, just like in D.C. and the rest of the country.

“A lot of people died so you all could be in a public school,’’ Ford recalled one of her critics saying.

The critic was referring to Little Rock Central High, where Ford was among students handpicked to push desegregation efforts in the 1960s.

 “I remember the huge library and the incredible biology and science labs. We had great teachers,” Ford said. “But this is 2012. We can’t keep going back to the ‘60s. We have to move forward.”

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BY Sherri Ackerman

Sherri Ackerman is the former associate editor of redefinED. She is a former correspondent for the Tampa Bay Times and reporter for The Tampa Tribune, writing about everything from cops and courts to social services and education. She grew up in Indiana and moved to Tampa as a teenager, graduating from Brandon High School and, later, from the University of South Florida with a bachelor’s degree in mass communications/news editing. Sherri passed away in March 2016.

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