Amanda Escue lives in Jonesboro, Arkansas, with her husband, Jeremy, and children. Through her work as a speech language pathologist, and also as a parent of a child with special needs, Amanda saw how students struggle when they are trapped in a learning environment not suitable for them. So, she and Jeremy opened the Lighthouse Homeschool Cooperative four years ago to give these students (and their families) help and hope. Last year, Lighthouse adopted the Prenda microschool model of learning. 

Nothing is more stifling to education than limiting opportunities. The unyielding labor to control education in our state is glaring. Parents of struggling learners have a handful of options. They can surrender their children to a school system that may or may not be able to satisfy their educational needs, pay burdensome out-of-pocket tuitions for private school, or homeschool. For obvious reasons, the latter two options are often not feasible, leaving families with what seems to be the only choice, settling for an inadequate educational experience provided by the local school district.

There is no overstating my appreciation for teachers. Anyone with a heart for education is a special person, indeed. Any teacher able to navigate the current educational system without losing passion and focus on individualized education is, no doubt, a superhero. Some teachers even support school choice initiatives: 56% of teachers in the Arkansas State Teachers Association, a nonpartisan and nonunion education association, supported HB1371, recent legislation that would have provided funding for both private school scholarships and public school grants.

The need for educational reform in the state of Arkansas is a point that is rarely denied. The process by which reform is to occur is widely debated, and in some cases, vehemently controverted. The opposition to educational freedoms resort to personal attack, claims of racism and accusations of corruption as routine responses to educational choice. This inability to provide logical indictment against educational choice in Arkansas is a clear sign of a weak cohort.

The knee-jerk reaction from school administration is understandable. For many rural communities in Arkansas, the local school district is the primary source of jobs and social opportunities for families. It is no surprise that accusations of the local school being inept to provide for the needs of struggling students triggers strong emotions. In nearly every district, though, there are families who feel their children are being overlooked and are suffering due to the school’s shortcomings. Our children are too precious to allow our feelings to close our eyes and ears to the reality that exists for thousands of students in our state. It is past time to start really listening to their stories and asking what we need to do.

Fortunately, we don’t have to look far for solutions. Other states have already begun this work of implementing alternative learning environments. In a study of three voucher programs and five privately funded scholarship programs across five states and D.C., EdChoice found that a vast majority of the research (11 out of 17)  showed positive outcomes for program participant test scores. Beyond  that, research from the University of Arkansas showed that expansion of school choice programs has led to higher NAEP achievement levels and higher NAEP achievement gains among public school students as well.

I write this as one who has also done the work to establish an alternative learning environment in our community. My husband and I made the decision to homeschool 12 years ago when our son with autism needed a different learning environment than we felt our local school district would not provide. For years, we have felt the options for him were too limiting. Four years ago, we created a school for other children in our area with similar needs. Now these students have a community in which they thrive, and when children thrive, they learn. They receive      therapeutic interventions and are given customized educational experiences that allow them to work at their pace with a diverse peer-focused atmosphere. It is beautiful, and it works. However, it isn’t cheap.

Current educational options are often too expensive for the families who need them most. These families are eligible for the same guarantees of a free and appropriate education in the least restrictive environment for their children, provided under the federal IDEA law. Yet these families are not able to access their child’s appropriated funds to provide them an education that is appropriate for their child because our legislators refuse to allow more educational freedoms to our students. Currently, public school districts retain funds for students who enroll in private school or are being homeschooled, creating even more incentive for these districts to fail to provide for the needs of these students.

Our state’s legislators have had several opportunities over the past decade to open the door for educational choice for struggling learners in Arkansas. Again, and again, the door is closed. I question why our representative electors are not considering this wealth of research substantiating that broader options for education leads to better educational, health and economic outcomes for students. It is clear that educational choice is the path to a better Arkansas.