School choice proponents hope a new Arkansas charter school will preface even more options for families once lawmakers reconvene in 2015.
“There is a growing interest in making sure that [Arkansas] students have the best educational opportunities available,” said Virginia Walden Ford, an Arkansas native and founding member of the Black Alliance for Education Options. Walden Ford now works with the Arkansas Parent Network and has been traveling the state to discuss school choice with families. In conjunction with rising interest, Ford noted, “There is an effort to establish additional charter schools.”
Parents Start a School
Parents’ interest in school choice led to the Northwest Arkansas Classical Academy in Bentonville. The K-8 academy opened its doors in fall 2013.
Some Bentonville parents wanted an alternative to local public schools and gathered signatures in November 2012 to make their case to the Arkansas State Board of Education. The Board unanimously approved the open-enrollment charter. The school will add a grade each year until it reaches K-12. The school provides students a classical liberal arts education.
Parents have driven the creation and continued operation of the school, although it is run by career educators. The school recognizes a key element of educational success is having strong parental involvement, which it enforces by requiring parent volunteer hours and attendance at parent-teacher meetings.
Parental involvement is one of the biggest indicators of children’s likely school success. The National Education Association says parent involvement gives children a better chance of succeeding and staying in school regardless of the family’s income or background.
From Charters to Full Choice
The Arkansas Department of Education recently approved another charter school, which will open in west Little Rock. The new school is another initiative taken by local parents, who presented their petition to the charter board with more than 300 signatures.
The charter school movement in Arkansas has begun to set the stage for even broader school choice within the state, Ford said.
When asked about a school choice movement within Arkansas, the Arkansas Policy Foundation’s executive director, Greg Kaza, pointed to a recent report demonstrating the policy environment in his state has dramatically shifted to favor school choice.
In 2012, Republicans won control of the state Senate and House for the first time since the Reconstruction era, creating a legislative environment open to expanding school choice in the state. Lawmakers had already expanded charter schools four times since 1999.
Arkansas State Rep. Randy Alexander proposed a bill in 2013 to start a voucher program in the state. Ford says she thinks the bill will come back up in the next legislative session, which begins in 2015. “Parents and legislators will be receptive to looking at this proposal for Arkansas,” she predicts
Until then, Ford continues to travel the state to help make this a reality, and parents continue seeking better schools for their children.
Image by Michael Mueller.