More to Choose: School Choice and Friedman’s Vision

By Dr. Mavuto Kalulu

Today, the Arkansas school choice menu includes district transfers, charter school options, and home schooling. Beginning this fall, the menu has been expanded to include a limited voucher program that will only be served to special needs children.

While this menu may satisfy some, there are unnecessary limits.

For starters, these school choice options should be made available for all who wish to partake. There is an arbitrary three percent cap imposed on transfers from a school district. Additionally, court desegregation orders allow certain school districts to reject inter-district school transfers.  According to the Arkansas Department of Education, there are currently 16 school districts that have asked for exemptions to participate in inter-district school transfers.

The artificial restrictions do not end with inter-district transfers. There is a separate arbitrary cap placed on the number of open enrollment charter schools allowed in Arkansas. The cap is currently set at 29. But the sheer amount of students on charter school wait lists are evidence enough that the cap is an impediment to Arkansans receiving the education they desire. For example, in February of 2016, eStem charter school had about 6,000 students on the waitlist, an indication that parents desire this choice.

Those in favor of removing the charter school cap face fierce opposition from traditional public schools. For example, the expansions of Lisa Academy and eStem charter schools in Little Rock were strongly opposed by the Little Rock School District. This opposition is a result of the competition for students between charter schools and traditional public schools. Competition, however, is what Milton Friedman saw as the force that would drive public schools to perform better. A review of school choice research by the Friedman Foundation suggests that Friedman was correct: competition improves academic outcomes of students and schools, save taxpayers money, reduce segregation in schools and improve students’ civic values.

But with all these restrictions, is there true competition among Arkansas schools? Not enough. Even the voucher program that has just started this fall is heavily restricted to students with special needs is limited to 100 students.

While Arkansas’ school choice menu may look appetizing to some, it is just that – an appetizer. The restrictions imposed on the options impede competition and prevent us from having a full menu of options for parents and students. Many parents, even those in failing school districts, are not able to choose a better school. The legislature should remove many of the current restrictions and allow all Arkansas’ students to choose from a broader, more satisfying menu of educational options.

For more ACRE research on education in Arkansas, visit