For Real School Choice in Arkansas, the State’s Open Enrollment Policy Needs Reforming
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For Real School Choice in Arkansas, the State’s Open Enrollment Policy Needs Reforming

An arbitrary cap on how many inter-district transfers a school district can allow in a year is holding back Arkansas' open enrollment policy.

Since 1989, the Arkansas government has pursued public school choice by requiring public and charter schools to accept inter-district transfer students. But with a lack of mandatory reporting on seating capacity, a failure to ensure that state and local dollars flow with the child, and an arbitrary three percent cap on how many inter-district transfers a school district can allow in a year, there is still much to improve when it comes to the state’s open enrollment policy.

Under the current legislation, public and charter schools must have open enrollment policies, with few exceptions – including those subject to court-ordained desegregation orders. School districts can’t charge tuition to open enrollment students and must give priority to students transferring districts to be with a sibling and those unable to transfer in prior years. While parents remain responsible for transporting children to their new district, districts willing to cooperate in providing public transport options can do so.

Data provided by the Arkansas Department of Education shows large numbers of open enrollment students, confirming the program’s popularity. Only 48 of the state’s 266 traditional public school districts accepted no transfers in 2018-2019.

The three percent cap should be abolished to provide further opportunity and choice to parents and students across the state. Instituted in 2013, the cap was intended to replace a previous rule which explicitly prevented students from enrolling in school districts where members of their own race are more represented than in the one they reside within. This rule, to prevent students from sorting into schools along racial lines, was deemed unconstitutional for violating the 14th Amendment’s ‘equal protection’ clause. Arkansas legislators then instituted a cap without reference to race as a means of preventing rapid “re-segregation” while ensuring a constitutionally valid Public School Choice Act.

However, school districts that are subject to desegregation orders are already exempt from the program and maintaining caps or other caveats on public school choice only undermines the interests of the marginalized communities that desegregation policies intend to support.

Public school choice plays an essential role in remedying social inequality. Wealthy parents already exercise their own form of school choice, as they can afford to relocate their families to areas with preferable schools or enroll their kids in private schools of their choice.

When desegregation orders were first introduced in Arkansas’ schools, white families, who were typically more affluent than their black counterparts, responded by moving out of urban areas and into the suburbs. This perversely increased segregation not only of school districts but entire communities. In 1970, three in four residents of Little Rock, the state capital and its most populous city, were white and one in four residents were black. By 2010, less than half of the city’s population was white, and 42 percent was black.

The central tenet of school choice is divorcing the link between a student’s zip code and their school. This has the potential to support desegregation efforts by encouraging diverse communities. But an arbitrary cap limits this effect.

Public school choice is more popular among African American families than those of other demographics. In the 2012-13 school year, 72 percent of school choice transfers in Arkansas were by white students, with whites accounting for 77 percent of Arkansas’ population in 2010. African Americans were the second-highest demographic for school choice transfers, accounting for 20 percent of transfers in that year despite comprising just 15 percent of the Arkansan population. This is a significant overrepresentation.

As African Americans tend to be in the public schools with worse outcomes, it’s not hard to see why school choice programs are appealing. In 2018, African American kids in Arkansas public schools graduated high school at nearly a four percent lower rate than average. Almost three in four African American children in 10th grade required additional support in mathematics and over half required additional support in literacy. Less than half of their Caucasian and Hispanic peers reported the same. Strong correlations also exist between economic disadvantage and below-average graduation rates and test scores.

Giving disadvantaged or marginalized families more choice in finding public schools with the right support can be life-changing, and it’s no wonder then that consistent majorities of African Americans in Louisiana, Tennessee, Alabama, and other states express support for school choice.

Arkansas could also foster school choice by eliminating, or reducing, the role of local revenue in public school finance. Schools would be incentivized to engage in school choice if they received the same revenue for accepting inter-district transfers as they would for educating a local child. Mandatory reporting on seating capacity and other factors would also ensure that schools aren’t turning away inter-district transfers on spurious grounds.

Implementing these reforms and abolishing the three percent cap would ensure that school choice continues to deliver opportunity, equity and the best outcomes possible for Arkansas’ families and students.

Satya Marar is a policy analyst at Reason Foundation.

Wesley Armstrong is a policy intern at Reason Foundation.