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Friday, August 15, 2014

Education Commissioner: Expect new school choice law in 2015

Posted By on Fri, Aug 15, 2014 at 11:13 AM

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The State Board of Education on Friday heard a report from the Department of Ed staff on school choice numbers by district from the past school year (2013 - 14). The data, which is from a survey performed in March, lists the number of students who left or joined each district under the state's school choice law, broken down by race/ethnicity. It's available here. (Sorry, link was broken; now fixed.)

The current law was slapped together in the 2013 legislative session as a temporary replacement for the state's previous school choice statute, which was struck down by a federal court as that session was beginning. The temporary law sunsets automatically in summer 2015. 

"It's clear and on the minds of many legislators that this issue will be back [in 2015]," said Education Commissioner Tony Wood. "Without some action legislatively in January, Arkansas would have no choice [law] at all" after next summer.

School choice is complicated. Like anything containing the word "choice", the concept sounds irreproachable at first. Surely parents should have some say over where their kids go to school, even if those schools are public. But in practice, it can enhance inequality within the education system. Kids with more engaged parents leave troubled districts; kids with less engaged parents are left behind, further stacking the odds against those districts being able to turn themselves around. And, school choice can easily become a vehicle for white flight.

Board member Jay Barth said the numbers in the report aren't much help without context, but he's concerned about the fact that much of the movement in and out of districts does seem to be from white families. Of course, everything turns on the demographics of the individual district, where the students are moving to (or from), and a hundred other factors.

"It doesn't really get inside the black box of what's happening with the data," Barth said. "There are some pretty clear racial patterns — mostly with some pretty disproportionate number of white students 'choosing out.' But not always. There are also African-American students moving between districts."

Also presented to the board: a report on the latest in the convoluted, opaque and politically treacherous debate over expanding K-12 broadband access, which I'll do my best to decipher in a later post today.

Funding for education reporting provided by the Arkansas Public Policy Panel.

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