As the old saying goes, if you give a person a fish, you’ve fed that person for a day—but if you teach someone to fish, you’ve fed them for a lifetime. As the proverb implies, our children need the nourishment that only a quality education can provide—but many cannot obtain it. This National School Choice Week, we should consider how more and better educational options can expand the doors of opportunity for every student and every family.
In Arkansas, student outcomes have not kept up with national standards, with test scores on the “Nation’s Report Card” below nationwide averages. For instance, in eighth grade reading, Arkansas ranks below 36 other states, with fewer than one-third of students (29 percent) scoring at or above proficient levels. In eighth grade math, Arkansas ranks below 41 other states, with only one-quarter (25 percent) of students achieving proficient status.
The data also demonstrates how low-income children could benefit from better educational options. In eighth grade, students who qualify for free or reduced-price school lunches scored 20 points lower in reading than students not eligible for the program; in eighth grade math, the gap stood at an even wider 27 points. Worst yet, these performance gaps have not changed within the past two decades.
The Reform Alliance exists to prevent the next generation of Arkansas youths from becoming a statistic, by making sure families know about the many quality educational options available to them. Parents can homeschool their children, or in many districts can select open enrollment, in which students attend public schools outside their assigned neighborhood. Parents also have access to magnet programs offering specialized instruction in programs like science or the arts, and charter schools, publicly funded institutions with greater autonomy and accountability than traditional schools. Private schools are also available for those who can afford tuition or find private scholarships.
Thankfully, Arkansas continues to expand its school options for families. The new Success Scholarship program, launched in 2016, provides publicly funded scholarships to a select group of students in foster care or with special needs. And since last January, families can withdraw up to $10,000 per year from Arkansas 529 accounts to pay tuition fees for a K-12 education, in addition to the 529’s traditional use as a vehicle to save for college.
Both individually and collectively, these school options can bring hope to thousands of Arkansans. One mother told us the importance of a quality education, remarking emotionally: “We all know the hardships, and the financial barriers. Being able to have that opportunity [a school choice scholarship] would allow us to produce two beneficial children in Arkansas.…We’re making sacrifices to make sure that our children receive the education that we know that they deserve.”
This National School Choice Week, organizations like The Reform Alliance and others will gather at more than 40,000 events nationwide the week of Jan. 20-26. These events will showcase the millions of students benefiting from school choice, and spread the good news—a message of hope and opportunity—to other families who can benefit.
The numerous stories on our website, and the smiles on the faces of children at National School Choice Week events, illustrate the way that access to quality educational options can transform a child’s life forever. Let’s keep working to expand those options, and extend choice to every family, across Arkansas and across the country.