Laurie Lee has an analogy she likes to use about education standards.
It goes: You have an elephant, a snake, a chimpanzee and a panther and in order for them to pass the third grade, they have to climb a tree. Of course, they won’t all be able to do it. The lesson? You have to be able to fit the needs of the child instead of the child conforming to the education system.
Lee is executive director of A+ Arkansas, a grassroots coalition of more than 3,000 parents, educators and business leaders, including members of Walmart’s Walton family, seeking education reform that includes more charter schools.
“Education is the foundation of everything in our community, including economics,” Lee says. “If you don’t have a good education system, how can you expect to have a good economy in Arkansas? All of these people realize that if we have strong education, we have a strong Arkansas. We have to do a better job of making sure our kids can compete not just in the Arkansas market or a national market, but in a global market.”
If the traditional public school is failing and the kids coming out of it can’t compete in college or for jobs, don’t you want it to die?
The coalition is currently lobbying legislators at the state capitol in Little Rock. They are pushing four major reforms, developed from 28 town hall meetings across the state last fall, that they want to pass during the legislative session.
The first education reform focuses on district choice in order to broaden school choice options for parents. There are approximately 33 charter schools in Arkansas.
“If your child’s school is not fitting their needs, as a parent you should have the option to take your child to whatever school you see fit,” Lee says.
The group has already been successful on this front with state Sen. Johnny Key, a Republican, introducing a bill last week that would eliminate barriers for students to attend any school. Key tweeted, “Kids should not be bound to attend a school b/c of arbitrary, imaginary lines that create a ‘district.’” Critics argue that the bill would encourage “white flight” in that white parents could move their children out of a minority district and into a white one. They also worry that such an allowance would kill small school districts.
Lee argues that many of these small districts should be shut down because they are failing.
“If the traditional public school is failing and the kids coming out of it can’t compete in college or for jobs, don’t you want it to die?” she asks.
Last November, the Arkansas Department of Education released a report that showed more than half of Arkansas’ 1,102 K-12 public schools were failing achievement and graduation goals in the state’s revised school accountability system in the 2011-12 school year. In 2009, a report by the state education department stated that the number of Arkansas schools repeatedly failing to meet math and literacy goals more than tripled during the last school year. However, the recent Education Week Quality Counts education survey ranked Arkansas fifth nationally in academic excellence.
A+ Arkansas also wants more charter schools and independence for them. The group suggests an independent authorizer for charter schools trying to start in the state rather than the state Board of Education. A bill sponsored by state Rep. Mark Bivano, a Republican legislator, was also introduced last week. Critics argue that the commission made up of legislators would be GOP-controlled. Lee argues that such a commission would allow charter schools to “think outside the box.”
The grassroots group also wants to move school board elections from September to November during general elections. Lee says this would save taxpayers money and increase turnout on education issues.
Lastly, Lee says they want to increase distance learning and allow students to take advantage of technology. To the critics, Lee says that they should come to the table and be part of the solution instead of being a naysayer.
“Why should we relegate failure to two-thirds of our 486,000 Arkansas students because we refuse to think outside the box?” she says.
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Suzi Parker is an Arkansas-based political and cultural journalist whose work frequently appears in The Washington Post and The Christian Science Monitor. She is the author of two books. @SuziParker | TakePart.com