By: Abríel Williams
Disclaimer: The views expressed in this post are those of the author, and do not necessarily reflect views of the Journal, the William H. Bowen School of Law, or UA Little Rock.
Arkansas’ Senate Bill 294 (hereinafter, “the LEARNS Act”) was signed into law on March 8, 2023 by Governor Sarah Sanders. At first glance, the legislation appears as an attempt to improve the state’s educational rankings by giving parents more control of their children’s education, but in reality, the bill threatens to exacerbate existing disparities and create more educational barriers for students from poor and rural communities. The root cause of many educational disparities is the lack of funding. This legislation will provide even less state funding to public schools in poorer neighborhoods under the guise of school choice and, in time, lead to an increase in school closures and takeovers.
School choice is not a new concept. Following the decision in Brown v. Board of Education (which held that segregation in public schools was unconstitutional), districts made attempts to allocate public school funding to private schools and still seek to do so today through school vouchers and educational funds, like the Educational Freedom Account Program included in the Arkansas LEARNS Act.
Schools predominantly receive funding from local and state funds. Schools receive local funds based on property taxes generated from surrounding neighborhoods. The state allocates funding to schools based on how many students are enrolled in that school. In Arkansas, schools receive approximately $6,000-$7000 per student in state funds. Through its Educational Freedom Account Program, the LEARNS Act will provide vouchers to students allowing them to leave their “failing” schools to enroll in private schools or be homeschooled. As a result, this legislation will inadvertently funnel state funds from public schools located in poor and rural areas to private schools.
The idea of “failing” schools is a political one. Schools are primarily assessed based on their overall performance on standardized exams. Schools with low test scores are deemed failing. Students in these schools typically overwhelmingly come from low-income households. Studies have shown that test scores alone are not necessarily indicative of a student’s aptitude, but are more of a reflection of the applicant’s parents’ income and level of education. Students from higher income backgrounds generally achieve higher scores on standardized tests. “Failing” schools live under the constant threat of state takeover, but the LEARNS Act allows for another option–charter takeover.
In fact, we are already seeing this in rural areas like Marvell, Arkansas. The Marvell-Elaine School District is an Arkansas public school district that has been threatened with state takeover. The Arkansas State Board of Education met for a special session on May 5th to vote on whether to gift the Marvell-Elaine School District to the charter school management group Friendship Education Foundation, a charter management operation.
We need to reevaluate the systems that are used to provide funding to school districts to cultivate equal educational opportunities for all students irrespective of socioeconomic status or academic achievement. Allocating funds to support and maintain existing public schools rather than siphoning funds away from them would be a more equitable solution. The LEARNS Act will cost the state $297.5 million dollars in its first year of implementation and $343.3 million dollars in its second year. The funds being used to implement the LEARNS Act could be better spent in a way that intentionally targets underfunded and underserved schools creating environments conducive to high quality learning. This would, in turn, yield higher achievement levels, provide adequate support to teachers, and ultimately, strengthen low-income and rural communities in Arkansas.
About the Author: Abríel Williams is a third-year law student at the William H. Bowen School of Law. She is a member of the Arkansas Journal of Social Change and Public Service and also serves as a Bowen Admissions Mentor and as the Part-Time Liaison for the Black Law Student Association.