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Arkansas Is Thinking Big on School Reform. Will It Work?

The governor’s ambitious plan bets heavily on competition, through vouchers and school choice, but there’s no reliable evidence that competition can make a real difference.

Sanders at bill-signing
Arkansas Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders at the signing ceremony for her education reform law on March 8, 2023. She called it the “largest overhaul of the state's education system in Arkansas history.” (4029 News)
As public school students in Arkansas begin their new semester over the next few weeks, they will be involved in the start of an education experiment bolder than anything tried by any state in the last several decades.

When fully implemented in the coming years, it will encompass a massive pupil voucher and school choice program, higher literacy standards in the elementary grades, a substantial increase in instructor pay (along with weakened job protections), a community service requirement for high school graduation, and a reduction in the power of teachers’ unions.

All of this is the project of Sarah Huckabee Sanders, the newly installed governor who made her reputation as a previous governor’s daughter and as White House press secretary to President Donald Trump. She won a first term handily last fall, but it was easy to underestimate her, and many people did. She was seen as a minor tabloid celebrity trading on her name recognition and her family’s legacy.

That turned out to be a serious misjudgment. Sanders came into office knowing exactly what she wanted to do, and she did it within weeks of her inauguration. Touting her 145-page LEARNS Act when she signed it into law in February, she called it the “largest overhaul of the state’s education system in Arkansas history. … We’ve seen how the status quo condemns Arkansans to a lifetime of poverty, and we’re tired of sitting at the bottom of national education rankings. We know that if we don’t plant this seed today, then there will be nothing for our kids to reap down the line.”

Some of Sanders’ allies in the Legislature went even further. Rep. Keith Brooks, a Little Rock Republican who was one of the bill’s chief sponsors, said the law meant that Arkansas can “reimagine what learning is” and will be a national leader in education. “Today,” Brooks declared, “Arkansas steps up and makes a covenant with generations to come that we will lead the way for education transformation in the United States of America.”

The LEARNS Act will cost Arkansas nearly $300 million in its first year and about $350 million in the second year. Higher pay for teachers, whose minimum salaries will jump from $36,000 to $50,000, will cost $180 million. The voucher program will cost up to $100 million in Year 2.

There is no disputing the scope of what Arkansas is attempting, or the skill with which Sanders and her allies maneuvered it into law. But there is one overriding question that will not be answered for years to come. Will it accomplish anything significant?

IT MAY COME AS A SURPRISE TO MANY, but Arkansas has been something of a magnet for school reform ideas over the past few decades. It all goes back to Bill Clinton, who returned to the governorship in 1983, after having lost a bid for re-election two years earlier, determined to make education the centerpiece of his resurrected political career. Clinton created an Education Standards Committee, chaired by his wife Hillary, and that group came up with proposals to enhance curriculum, boost teacher quality and establish universal student testing and mandatory kindergarten. Despite legislative opposition, Clinton pushed through a one-cent sales tax increase to pay for his ideas.

Clinton’s reforms attracted a fair amount of national attention, and made him the hero of a best-selling book, Reinventing Government, by David Osborne and Ted Gaebler. In the end, the reviews of Clinton’s program were mixed, but contrary to what many assume, Arkansas did escape the very bottom rungs of school quality evaluation.

Still, almost as soon as Clinton left Little Rock for the White House in 1993, the state became the focus of a much different school experiment, launched by the Arkansas-based and almost infinitely wealthy Walton Family Foundation, through a group it called Arkansas Learns. This was a conservative experiment, rooted in support for charter schools, opposition to teachers’ unions and a faith in competition as the primary engine of school improvement. And it grew to be national in scope: By 2016, it was reported, the foundation had spent or pledged $2 billion for charter schools across the country and was pouring more than $5 billion into a variety of other activities, not all of which had been publicly identified. As of this year, Arkansas has 86 charter schools serving 42,191 students.

After all these years of experiment and considerable turmoil, Arkansas has experienced tangible but decidedly modest improvement. Forty years after Clinton’s innovations began, the state places 33rd in school quality in one respected ranking and 43rd in another. U.S. News lists it as 40th in expenditures on education. That’s nothing to write home about, but it does rise above once-comparable laggards such as Mississippi and Alabama, long viewed as embarrassing school-quality backwaters.

AS FOR THE CHARTER SCHOOLS, they remain a subject of intense controversy and a source of disputed results, in Arkansas as in much of the rest of the country. The most recent reputable national study, by Stanford University’s Center for Research on Education Outcomes, found that between 2014 and 2019, after years of spotty results, charter school students were gaining, on average, 16 days of improvement in reading and six days in math over their counterparts in traditional public schools. Eighty-three percent of charter school students performed the same as or better than their peers in reading, and 75 percent performed the same as or better in math, according to the study, which covered 29 states, New York City and the District of Columbia.

There are more than a few reasons for skeptics to take these results at something less than face value. The families that choose charter schools aren’t necessarily reflective of families in general: The pupils who opt for charter schools over conventional ones are likely to be somewhat more inclined to serious study than the cohort of students as a whole. On another front, the cities that have gone most heavily for charter schools, notably New Orleans and Washington, D.C., have seen those schools plagued in some cases by corruption, waste and mismanagement.

In New Orleans, which essentially instituted an all-charter system, the Orleans Parish School Board reported that in the 2018-2019 school year, based on standardized-testing data, six charter schools earned an “A” grade, but 21 earned a “D” and eight were operating with an “F” grade. One state legislator complained that “the charter law says if you’re trying something as an experiment and it doesn’t work, you’re supposed to eliminate it.” So the jury is still out on charter schools, after decades of experiment. This bears significantly on what Sanders is trying to accomplish in Arkansas.

BUT IN A BROADER WAY, it makes sense to think of the Arkansas reforms as the latest stage (some might say the last gasp) of a multidecade movement that has seen competition as the perfect solution to a whole myriad problems in American public life.

The belief in competition as an ultimate policy panacea goes back to the 1970s, and the writing of a passel of free-market economists at the University of Chicago and in the federal bureaucracy. It quickly became the engine of deregulatory schemes supported by both parties in Congress, leading to the deregulation of trucking and air travel as a way to stimulate competitive forces that would bring down consumer costs. We can argue about the ultimate impact of these moves — one of the nation’s biggest trucking companies just filed for bankruptcy, and the airline industry is now ruled by a handful of giant corporations, not a swarm of ambitious competitors — but the march to competition was only beginning.

In the 1990s it became the framework for the Clinton administration’s massive and fruitless health-care initiative, which was conveniently explained as “managed competition.” It survived as a key element of the Obama administration’s more successful effort, offered as a way to bring down overall health-care costs. Obamacare has done many good things, but dramatically reducing costs has unfortunately not been one of them.

But perhaps the most influential onslaught of competition was in the field of education. The 2001 federal No Child Left Behind law, another product of bipartisan agreement, was based largely on the idea that if school performance were rigorously tested and evaluated, and the poorest performers forced to suspend operation, American public schools as a whole would try harder and function better.

This didn’t work, and there are a few simple reasons why it could not work: School quality is not primarily a function of pedagogical effort; it depends on the preparation and motivation of the students who are enrolled. Test scores largely reflect demographics. If you know the socioeconomic details of a school district, you can fairly easily predict its test scores. How hard the schools are trying or what sort of competitors they are facing have little to do with it. Two decades of evidence have made that clear.

Still, the idea that school quality can be revolutionized by competition lies somewhere near the heart of Sanders’ reform effort in Arkansas. Its choice and voucher programs reflect a commitment to parents’ rights, but also the lingering notion that if public schools face the threat of families taking their voucher money and walking away, the schools will shape up in ways that they didn’t before. There is no reliable evidence that this will happen.

This is not a wholesale criticism of what Sanders is attempting. Higher teacher salaries, community service requirements in high school and higher literacy standards in the elementary grades all sound like good ideas. But the equally prominent emphasis on vouchers, choice and competition serves to remind us of something important in the life cycle of public policy: Those who make that policy are often the unwitting captives of once-fashionable ideas that have long since shown their weaknesses.
Alan Ehrenhalt is a contributing editor for Governing. He served for 19 years as executive editor of Governing Magazine. He can be reached at
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