An advocate for increased school choice and more charter schools ran into a skeptical audience today among members of the Arkansas Legislative Black Caucus.

Luke Gordy, executive director of the Arkansans for Education Reform Foundation, testified before the caucus regarding his group’s support of Senate Bill 65, which would provide unlimited school choice for students.

Arkansas’ previous school choice law was declared unconstitutional last year because nonresident students could not transfer to a district that had a higher percentage of their own race than the student’s. Legislators are considering several school choice bills to replace that law.

“You’re the mom or you’re the grandparent,” he said. “Why shouldn’t you have the right and the option to send that child to a district where they will get the best possible education for them? One size doesn’t fit all.”

But legislators expressed concern that an unlimited school choice law would result in schools resegregating along racial lines. Sen. Linda Chesterfield (D-Little Rock) said she went to all-African-American schools until she attended Hendrix College, and while she received a good education, she used five-year-old textbooks and other outdated equipment.

She said she feared that unlimited school choice would lead to a segregated system where certain schools had access to better resources. “I do know that money flows from where money is, and there’s not a lot of money in the black community,” she said. “And when you resegregate schools, money tends to flow where white children are, not where black children are.”

Gordy responded that African-American students now are trapped in bad schools because they don’t have a choice option.

Gordy also argued in favor of more charter schools, which are public schools that have more freedom to experiment than traditional public schools. He emphasized that increased competition would force many schools to get better. He said his group was not trying to attack public schools.

The legislators were not convinced. Sen. Joyce Elliott (D-Little Rock) argued that schools succeed better by cooperating, not competing, and that increased competition would create a system of winners and losers. Rep. Reginald Murdock (D-Marianna) said he feared that a system with many charter schools would undermine traditional schools, leaving them with only unprepared students struggling because of socioeconomic factors.

Gordy’s group is led by some of the state’s heavy hitters: Jim Walton of the Walton family, Arkansas Democrat-Gazette publisher Walter Hussman, Bill Dillard of Dillard’s Department Stores, and Murphy Oil’s Claiborne Deming.

They and school reformers have been making a stronger push for school reforms this session that has resulted in some pushback from traditional school advocates. On Jan. 29, school reformers held a rally at the Capitol headlined by former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush. The next day, traditional school supporters responded with a rally of their own.

Rich Huddleston, head of Arkansas Advocates for Children and Families, testified after Gordy on behalf of the Arkansas Opportunity to Learn Campaign, a coalition involving some of those groups. He laid out a different set of priorities such as expanding access to pre-kindergarten education and improving access to afterschool and summer programs.

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Steve Brawner

Steve Brawner

Steve Brawner is a freelance journalist and contributor to Talk Business & Politics. He is also a syndicated columnist in 10 Arkansas newspapers. You can email him at brawnersteve@mac.com or follow him on Twitter: @SteveBrawner.