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Op-Ed: Arkansas, Ground Zero in fight to end public school segregation, now is latest state to join school choice revolution

By By Chris Talgo | The Heartland Institute,

2023-03-14

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In 1957, the eyes of the nation were focused on Arkansas, when Democratic Gov. Orval Faubus refused to allow nine Black students to attend Little Rock Central High School three years after the landmark Supreme Court decision in Brown v. Board of Education, which ended public school segregation based on race.

Eventually, President Eisenhower sent the 101st Airborne Division to ensure the Black students, who became known as the “Little Rock Nine,” were safely admitted to the previously “whites only” high school. With this, the era of public school segregation came to an end, as Black students were finally able to enroll in public schools that had hitherto been open solely to whites.

Unfortunately, more than six decades after this monumental step in the civil rights movement, far too many American children, and Black students in particular, are facing a much different problem: Now, they are stuck in unsafe, poorly performing public schools simply based on their zip codes.

To solve this problem, many states are embracing a commonsense solution that also happens to be overwhelmingly popular among broad swathes of the American electorate: school choice.

On March 8, Sarah Huckabee Sanders, the newly elected Republican governor of Arkansas, signed into law a universal school choice bill, joining Arizona, Iowa, West Virginia, and Utah as states that offer education savings accounts (ESAs) so that families can choose whichever type of school – public, private, or charter – their children shall attend.

According to the State Policy Network, “The Arkansas LEARNS Act will give Arkansas families $6,600 per student per year to pay for education expenses, such as textbooks, tutoring, and private school tuition. The program will have income requirements in the first three years, but by 2025 the program will be open to all families. The legislation will also increase the base salary for teachers from $36,000 to $50,000.”

As mentioned above, school choice is one of the rare issues that blurs political, racial, generational, and socio-economic lines. As recent polling shows, among registered voters, 72 percent of all Americans “support” school choice. What’s more, 72 percent of whites, 70 percent of Blacks, 77 percent of Hispanics, and 66 percent of Asians support the concept of school choice. And, perhaps most telling, 68 percent of Democrats, 82 percent of Republicans, and 67 percent of Independents agree that parents should have “the right to use the tax dollars designated for their child’s education to send their child to the public or private school which best serves their needs.”

In many ways, school choice is the new battleground for the modern civil rights movement. Whereas in the 1950s, only certain people could attend certain schools based on their race, we now live in a time wherein only certain people can attend certain schools based on the location of their home and amount of money at their disposal.

Like it or not, this is the state of the American education system. Yet, this system is fundamentally flawed, hopelessly outdated, and in dire need of immediate and wholesale reform.

Myriad data demonstrate that our public education system, as currently constructed, is simply failing to educate and keep our children safe. While it is true that these problems became more evident during the pandemic, when the vast majority of public schools remained closed and resorted to remote learning while private and charter schools remained open for in-person learning, the reality is that the system has been in a state of decay for decades.

In fact, on an apples-to-apples comparison, US News & World Report recently found that “Research has consistently shown that private school students tend to perform better in standardized tests. The National Assessment of Educational Progress, which is often referred to as ‘the nation’s report card,’ assesses both public and private school students in subjects such as math, reading, science and writing. The most recent NAEP data shows what other research has found: Private school students score better in almost all subjects. On college entry tests such as the SAT, NAIS found that students in private schools consistently out-performed their public school peers in all subject areas.”

Over the past few years, the disparity in educational quality between private and public schools has grown by leaps and bounds. This is especially evident when one compares average inner-city public schools to suburban schools and/or private schools located in the same urban neighborhoods.

At this point, we know that money (or lack thereof) is not the problem. In general, the cost to educate a child at a private school is significantly less than the amount needed to fund the average public school student.

Make no mistake, the education bureaucrats are well aware that their public schools are failing to properly educate millions of students whose families cannot afford to pay for a private school out of their own pocket. These same people are also totally alert to the fact that the public schools they oversee are corrupt and unsafe.

Could it be that these people – which includes the usual suspects: teacher union officials, leftist politicians, social justice warriors, etc. – favor the modern form of education segregation in which only the wealthy can afford to provide their kin with a solid education and therefore a more hopeful and successful future?

If this is the case, which I think it is, we must do as we did before. We must demand equality of opportunity in the education realm. It goes by the name of school choice and hopefully all Americans will have access to it in their state or neighborhood sooner than later.

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