A "school choice" supporter holds a sign that suggests vouchers are best for all kids. Data and experience suggest otherwise.

Editor’s note: Longtime Little Rock School District board member and former district superintendent Baker Kurrus has been following the “school choice” movement for decades, watching as the promised benefits of charters never materialized but unanticipated drawbacks did. The current push for vouchers not only won’t help our students; it will hurt those already hurting, he says. 

Dear Governor Sanders and legislators:

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It is clear that the governor plans on making some major “reforms” in public education. On Thursday, we saw the big rally for more school choice, and it reminded me of a similar event from not so long ago. The Arkansas legislature held a big rally in the name of “competition” in 1999 when the charter law was expanded to authorize open-enrollment charter schools. Charter advocates told us this school reform would promote competition, and that competition would make all schools better.

It’s been more than two decades now, and the promised perks never came about.

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The National Assessment of Educational Progress and ACT scores for Arkansas do not show any improvement, and are mostly a little lower. The talk about competition has changed to talk about more parental choice, because the competition argument just did not work. Pulaski County now has 134 publicly funded schools run by 19 different organizations. Parents can also home school, or send kids to virtual school. Perhaps we already have enough choices, especially if we are required by our state constitution to have an efficient system of public education.

What if the “choices” we offer are actually promoting and supporting a dual system of education, where the poorest and neediest students are left in traditional public schools? And don’t just think this is Little Rock’s or Eastern Arkansas’s problem. It is happening everywhere.

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Brian Chilson
Baker Kurrus advocates for LRSD at an Arkansas Board of Education meeting.

I sat on the Little Rock School Board for 12 years. I was superintendent of the Little Rock School District for 14 months. The best part of the job was going to schools, eating school breakfasts and lunches with students and meeting parents. I usually went by myself, without any fanfare. I had a badge and key codes to the buildings. I spent most of my time in the schools that had the greatest challenges. I spent early mornings on school playgrounds, or working the carpool/bus arrival lanes. I learned a lot more from these activities than I did from reading long articles written by think tanks or lobbyists. Kids are not just numbers on a test score graph. Some kids have Mickey Mouse watches that don’t work, and shoes that are worn out.

Before you launch any more “reforms,” I am going to ask you to do something simple that will take less of your time than a long lunch. 

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Call ahead to any elementary school with an F grade, as given by our Arkansas Department of Education. Talk to the principal and make arrangements to assist as students arrive one morning. Help in the carpool drop-off, and help as children are stepping off their buses. Look at the vehicles that drive up. Open car doors. Greet the kids and the drivers. If you get a chance to talk to the adults, you will see that most of them are working two jobs. Many seem either too old or too young. You will sense that these folks love their kids just as much as you and I love ours. Notice doughnut spare tires, smoke-filled cars and fast food wrappers in the floorboards. Look for children who seem to be too tired or too sick to be able to learn. Be on the lookout for wheelchairs. Stay long enough to see who comes in late, and visit the professionals who assist children with special needs. They appreciate a smile and a thank you more than you might know. Notice everything. Try to find any school employee who isn’t doing the best he or she can under the circumstances.

Then go to any LISA, Academic Plus, Haas Hall or eSTEM  school. Do the same things I described above. Nice cars. Kids on time. Lots of smiles. Lots of well-dressed parents on the way to a job where they shower before work, not after.

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Then be honest. Ask yourself if school reform is working to make life better for those who need a hand. Or have we segregated, isolated and stigmatized the very students who need help the most?  Don’t talk to me about open enrollment, or the ability to choose, or any of that stuff. Talk to me about what we have done, and what you see with your own eyes.

After this reality check, you might stop blaming teachers, criticizing traditional public schools in poor areas and enabling economic segregation. You might focus on building communities where people can live safely, work at meaningful jobs and provide a healthy start for their children. Your whole life could change for the better as you become part of the solution.

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I know you want “choice.”  Let’s have a rally for a unified, free and efficient system of public education that recognizes that poverty is not a choice.