Change Coaches’ to Improve Arkansas Education

Arkansans love their football. Imagine if their favorite team kept losing. Every game the coach called the same plays, hoping for a different outcome. That would definitely make Arkansans demand a new coach be hired to run a different system. What if we were discussing public education instead of football? Every year more and more public schools are failing, jeopardizing kids’ futures. Yet we keep running the same plays to ‘fix education’ and hoping for a different result. The Arkansas News reported that in 2013 only 137 of the state’s 1,055 public schools were classified as ‘achieving,’ which means that they met their annual achievement targets for graduation rate, literacy proficiency, and math proficiency. In July of 2014 the Arkansas Board of Education (ABE) announced that 26 schools were in academic distress, meaning that 49.5 percent or less of the students tested ‘proficient’ or ‘advanced’ on state benchmark exams for three consecutive years. Six of the 26 academically distressed schools are in the Little Rock School District (LRSD) and as of January 28, 2015, the LRSD was taken over by the ABE. An additional five school districts are listed as being ‘financially distressed,’ which does not sound promising for future academic achievement. Sadly, situations like these seem to be the new normal for Arkansas public education. If Arkansas public education is in systemic failure, how do we expect to run the same plays under the same system and achieve different results? However, at present, our choices are very limited: Arkansas’ families do not have many options for ‘switching coaches.’


The Arkansas General Assembly has started to grasp the situation and propose systemic changes. For example, this year State Representative Bruce Cozart (R-Hot Springs) sponsored a bill—withdrawn in mid-March—to establish an ‘achievement school district’ as an organization within the Department of Education. This super-district would provide operational oversight and governance for those public schools and school districts classified as academically distressed and taken over by the ABE. Encouragingly, the bill allows the Commissioner of Education to contract out the failing schools or school districts to non-profit entities to operate the failing schools as charter schools. Charter schools are tax-supported schools established by a ‘charter’ between a school board and a group outside the traditional public school system, which could be a private organization. In order to achieve specific goals—promoting art education, for example—this group operates the school outside of many of the regulations that bind traditional public schools. They are an example of innovation in school choice that allows the parents to send their kids to a school that best fits their needs and provides them with a better chance to succeed. Similarly, a bill sponsored by State Representative Reginald Murdock (D-Marianna) passed the Arkansas House of Representatives on March 13th. This bill would allow traditional public schools which are losing students to charter schools to apply to the ABE for the same regulatory waivers granted to the charter schools.


These are encouraging steps toward giving Arkansas’ families more choices to ‘switch coaches,’ but charter schools, special school districts, permitting students to transfer between public schools after their school has been officially labeled a ‘failure,’ and waiving their own rules for public schools are piecemeal measures—trying to replace the offensive coordinator on the same coaching staff and hope for more innovative play calling. There are other, proven methods of increasing parental choice in schooling. A more fundamental change to introduce choice and innovation into education would be to allow families from these failing schools to use the tax dollars allocated for their schooling at the public schools to attend other schools—public, charter, or private—using an educational voucher. Former State Representative Randy Alexander proposed just such a measure to the Arkansas House of Representatives back in 2013. Research shows that voucher systems like that proposal work in other states. An educational voucher system would work in Arkansas just as well.


But just like any innovation that challenges the status quo, these changes will face opposition, just like coaching changes. Fans will worry whether any other coach could do any better, and no coach wants to be forced to improve or lose his job. However, Arkansas’ education has not had a “winning season” for many years, and we know there is an effective alternative available. What about the “coaches” currently on the job? They work for Arkansan families to provide education. Arkansas does not work for them; to guarantee them a job free from meaningful competition.