Don’t gut; invest

Like so many Arkansans, my life has been shaped by great teachers and excellent public schools. As newly elected president of the Little Rock School District Board of Education, I am proud of my work supporting public education, and I want to take this opportunity to advocate for Arkansas’ amazing public schools.

Look around your neighborhood, workplace, church, or community, and you’ll see successful adults who were educated in public schools. For generations, public schools in Arkansas have produced our physicians, attorneys, scientists, business executives, elected officials, professional educators, faith leaders, mentors, parents, and role models. The story of public education is the story of Arkansas, and it’s a success story.

It’s also my story. My father, the late Jesse Mason Sr., graduated from Tuskegee Institute in 1936 and believed in Booker T. Washington’s philosophy of hard work, education, learning useful trades, and investment in your own businesses. I spent my first three years living in the home of Gloria Ray Karlmark, a member of the Little Rock Nine. As a teenager, I delivered the Southern Mediator Journal, a popular Black newspaper, to Daisy Gatson Bates. My father and the late Hervey C. Ray were friends and associates, and growing up, I was surrounded by mentors who prioritized education.

Before launching his career with the federal Farm Services Administration, my father was a principal in the 1940s at two segregated schools in Arkansas: Lincoln High School in Fayetteville and Almyra High School. My mother, Levada Parker Mason, was also an educator. She retired from Little Rock Hall High School in 1991. My sister, brothers, and aunt are also teachers with careers ranging from Chicago to small-town Arkansas. The children whose lives have been shaped by my family’s commitment to public education are too numerous to name, and I am proud to be carrying on that legacy by serving on the LRSD school board.

Today, though, public education in Arkansas is at risk. There is a movement underway to privatize education through the use of vouchers, tax credits, and policies billed as “school choice.” These policies assume that private and charter schools are better. I strongly disagree. Public schools remain the best option.

For example, public schools are where you will find the best, most experienced educators. Private schools are not required to employ licensed teachers, and many charter schools obtain waivers to exempt them from these requirements. Public schools must meet state and federal standards for teacher licensure, background checks, continuing education, and teacher pay. Public schools are also held to state and federal academic standards not applicable to private schools. In fact, because private schools serve a limited demographic and aren’t required to do the same types of assessments or release unbiased data, accurately comparing public and private school performance is impossible.

Students at public schools have the right to receive special education services, transportation, free and reduced lunch, adequate recess time, and due process. Private schools are not required to provide any of this. Moreover, students in Arkansas’ public schools participate in many valuable extracurricular activities, sports, and clubs alongside a diverse group of classmates. After high school, we all live and work together in dynamic, diverse, and ever-evolving communities. Don’t we want to prepare our students for that reality instead of subsidizing the resegregation of our schools and calling it “choice?”

Public school districts also work to empower parents, provide resources and information, and involve our stakeholders in district decisions. Public schools’ performance and demographic data is easily available on each district’s website. Public schools are subject to the Arkansas Freedom of Information Act and are democratically governed, allowing parents to have a voice in the development of school policies and budgets. Students in public schools have enforceable legal rights when it comes to decisions that impact their education. In contrast, families at private schools have exactly one option: They can leave.

Privatization policies give wealthy political donors in big cities a government-funded discount on the private-school tuition they are already paying. A 2016 study of a large Indiana voucher program showed that the majority of recipients had never attended a public school. Fort Wayne superintendent Wendy Robinson explained to NPR in 2017, “We’re not losing kids from our schools [to vouchers]. We’re now just having the state pay for kids who were never going to come here anyway.”

No matter how politicians spin them, these policies aren’t designed to help poor or rural kids. Vouchers often do not cover the full price of private-school tuition, keeping it out of reach for most Arkansans, and private schools don’t provide the types of services that low-income families need, like transportation. Additionally, most rural parts of Arkansas simply don’t have private school options, so “school choice” policies will only impact those areas by stretching public-school funding even thinner than it already is.

Privatization policies funnel taxpayer money to unaccountable private schools that often serve a select group of students the school deems easiest (and most profitable) to educate. In doing so, these laws concentrate poor, minority, and special-needs students in public schools while reducing the resources available to educate them.

Public schools are a public good that has successfully served generations of Arkansans. Let’s invest in public education, not destroy it.

Michael D. Mason is the president of the Little Rock School District Board of Education.