Ability for parents to decide where their kids go to school is a win for families

Families, community leaders, political figures and others across Arkansas celebrated National School Choice Week, which started Sunday and ends Friday, with more than 353 events, meetings and activities in the state.

Gov. Asa Hutchinson joined other governors throughout the country by proclaiming Jan. 21-27 as Arkansas Choice Week as well.

National School Choice Week President Andrew Campanella said he were excited that Arkansas joined the celebrations.

"Like parents everywhere, Arkansas parents want only the best for their kids' education, and we hope National School Choice Week will give them an opportunity to pursue what's best for their kids," he said in a news release.

The national week is held every January as a public awareness effort to shine a light on education options for every child including traditional public schools, public charter schools, public magnet schools, online learning, private schools and homeschooling.

Under the Arkansas Public School Choice Act of 2015, students in kindergarten through 12th grade became eligible to attend school in any district through an application process. The application is due no later than May 1 of the year a student seeks to begin the fall semester. The non-resident district notifies the resident district of the filing and, by July 1, rejections or acceptance notifications are sent to the parent or guardian, according to information obtained on the Conway School District website.

Conway Public Schools Superintendent Greg Murry said the requirements set into law in 2015 was the first time that all districts were required to participate in school choice.

"It was passed because of a national movement to give parents more choices," he said. "In other parts of the country, districts may not be performing well and legislators in those states wanted to give parents the chance to leave that district without moving to another home. I can only assume the legislators in Arkansas wanted to give parents in our state the same choice."

Murry said at Conway, there are no reasons that it can reject an applicant unless it doesn't have a place for that student to attend school; it also doesn't matter where in the state a student live as long as it's in Arkansas.

He said he couldn't speak to whether the change has been good or bad for the district.

"Some would say that it could place in jeopardy the ability of a small school district to remain open if a neighboring school were to attract a critical mass of students away from that school district," Murry said.

Conway schools had an enrollment of 10,001 as of October 2017.

For this school year, Greenbrier School District had an enrollment of 3,560 students.

Superintendent Scott Spainhour said the school choice option is great for parents because they get to determine where they want their children to go, and that the district was positively affected as well.

"It's been good for us," he said. "We've grown."

Through the years, Spainhour said, they've received students from all the neighboring districts and average about 40-45 school choice students a year and have gotten students all the way from Cabot, Arkansas attending Greenbrier.

But, just like in other schools, he said, whether a family's application is approved or not is based on room.

"Just because they apply is not 100 percent they can come or not," Spainhour said. "[But], once a school choice kid is approved, they're approved. I don't reject that many. It happens time to time."

In the years since the law went into event, he said, they haven't had any specific challenges or issues that he knows of except just always "trying to determine the numbers and spaces" they have.

Spainhour said that's why early enrollment for districts is so crucial — the earlier the better because he said they try to leave the school at 90-95 percent capacity to save some spots for school choice.

"Tha'ts the hard part is juggling the numbers and personnel," he said.

"Overall though," Spainhour said it's been positive for Greenbrier.

"It's added to the district … hasn't taken anything away," he said. "We've gained more than we've lost."

Arkansas Connections Academy, a virtual public school for students kindergarten through 11th grade across the state, also participates in school choice.

Principal Darla Gardner said the school meets the needs of students who deal with medical conditions, travel with parents, train as competitive athletes and more.

"Really, just a variety of reason and that's why we get excited about school choice," she said.

The school, Gardner said, gives students and their families — they currently enroll around 400 — the ability to have a flexible schedule and complete work on their own time by attending public school at home and connecting virtually with the more than 24 teachers at the academy through recorded lessons.

"It's exciting that Arkansas provides families with all kinds of choices, whatever their need might be," she said.

U.S. Senator John Boozman from Arkansas also declared his support for the law.

"I am proud to support school choice policies," he said in a news release. "As a former school board member, I understand that education decisions should be handled at the state and local level. The flexibility provided in Arkansas empowers parents to choose the best education options that meet the needs and learning styles of their children."