Research & Commentary: Arkansas’ Mediocre Education Quality

Published October 4, 2012

As significant education reforms sweep the country, Arkansas has made few consequential reforms in the past decade. The state offers practically no school choice and severely limits public charter schools. Arkansas has remained in the top five spenders on education as a percentage of the state budget, yet its students score below the national averages on standardized tests such as the respected National Assessment of Educational Progress.

Status quo supporters cite the state’s placement in the top five on Education Week‘s annual review and its student spending near the national average. They also note the high numbers of impoverished and minority students in certain areas of the state as a justification for mediocre academic achievement.

Reform proponents note the state’s education system is highly coercive and unresponsive to individual needs and preferences. Charter schools have difficulty gaining approval, and very little school choice exists. Arkansas also needlessly restricts potentially high-performing teachers by severely limiting their entrance into the profession, while local contract agreements prohibit school leaders from attracting the best talent through merit-influenced compensation. Student outcomes in Arkansas are mediocre at best, despite the state’s high education spending.

Arkansas needs education reform that empowers individual students, families, teachers, and administrators. Families, regardless of their personal wealth, must be free to send their children to a school of choice. Teachers and administrators should be free from excessive government regulation and allowed to manage schools and classrooms according to children’s needs instead of the desires of special interests.

The following documents offer more information about education quality in Arkansas.


2011 State Education Performance and Policy Index: Arkansas
This one-page overview of Arkansas’ education system from the American Legislative Exchange Council report considers the state’s policies on school choice, teacher quality, and online learning, as well as its per-pupil spending and national testing outcomes. It gives the state a C grade and ranks its education quality and offerings 45th among the states. 

High Expectations: Arkansas Charter School Raises the Bar
A set of Arkansas charter schools nets 100 percent graduation rates and high achievement from high-minority, high-poverty students, reports the Northeast Mississippi News. Their success has prompted Mississippi lawmakers to consider charter school legislation. The Arkansas KIPP charter schools are public schools but operate independently. Teachers say that gives the school necessary flexibility and responsiveness to student and families’ needs. Students thrive under the schools’ high academic and personal expectations.

Ark. Students Show Improvement on ACT College Entrance Test but Still Trail National Average
The most recent ACT college readiness results put Arkansas students behind the national average, with an average Arkansas score of 20 compared to a national score of 21, reports the Associated Press. In English, only 63 percent of Arkansas high school students rated ready for college, while only 23 percent rated the same in science.

Arkansas Students Doing Better on ACT Test
This report by KARK 4 News notes Arkansas’ minorities perform abysmally on the ACT national college readiness exam. Black students averaged a score of 16.7, and Hispanic students averaged 18.7; the national average is 21. Just 19 percent of Arkansas seniors demonstrated college-readiness in all four areas of the test, against a national success rate of 25 percent.

State LEA Funding / Loans and Bonds, Arkansas Department of Education
The Arkansas Department of Education provides data about the debt load of Arkansas school districts as of June 2012. School district debt and local property tax rates increased steadily over the previous five years, now amounting to approximately $3.6 billion, nearly two-thirds of what the state spends each year on education.

Parent Power Index: Arkansas
Arkansas “misses the mark by a mile” on education by restricting parents from making fundamental decisions about how their children are educated, concludes the Center for Education Reform. “Very few options are available to parents who nonetheless are active in petitioning their legislators,” it says. It rated the state slightly better on teacher quality measures and digital learning options, but overall, it said, the state’s education choice offerings are “gloomy.”

Throwing Money At Education Isn’t Working
State Budget Solutions examined national trends in education from 2009 to 2011, including state-by-state analysis of education spending as a percentage of total state spending and a comparison of average graduation rates and average ACT scores per state. The study shows states that spend the most do not have the highest average ACT test scores, nor do they have the highest graduation rates. It also notes Arkansas ranks in the top five in education spending as a percentage of the state budget, yet nets mediocre to poor performance in return.

Report Card on American Education: Ranking State K-12 Performance, Progress, and Reform
This is the full 2012 American Legislative Exchange Council report reviewing the quality of U.S. education and what is provided in each of the states. It outlines important education policy developments of the past year—notably, a dramatic increase in school choice—and explains how it arrived at its state-by-state grades and metrics. It also offers policymakers several lines of analysis for judging the quality of a state’s education system.


Nothing in this Research & Commentary is intended to influence the passage of legislation, and it does not necessarily represent the views of The Heartland Institute. For further information on this and other topics, visit the School Reform News Web site at, The Heartland Institute’s Web site at, and PolicyBot, Heartland’s free online research database, at

If you have any questions about this issue or The Heartland Institute, contact Heartland education policy research fellow Joy Pullmann, at 312/377-4000 or [email protected].