Region & State

Sanders, school choice supporters rally at Capitol

By ANTOINETTE GRAJEDA | Arkansas Advocate

Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders reiterated her commitment to an overhaul of education policy during a rally hosted by the Arkansas chapter of Americans for Prosperity on Thursday inside the Capitol.

Americans for Prosperity-Arkansas and the Arkansas chapter of The LIBRE Initiative held a rally Thursday morning to promote “school choice”. LIBRE is a group recently established in Arkansas to support Hispanic families. Daniel Garza, national president of LIBRE, speaks to attendees during the rally. | John Sykes/Arkansas Advocate

“This is not about school choice,” Sanders said. “This is about parental choice.”

Arkansas LEARNS, Sanders’ education plan, aims to improve literacy, increase workforce readiness and “empower parents with more choices.” Legislation addressing the goals of this education initiative will be rolled out in the coming weeks, Sanders said.

“We’re working very closely with our partners in the Legislature, and we will reform education in a way no state has ever done in this country and we will be the leader for the United States,” she said.

Guest speakers at Thursday’s rally included some out-of-state proponents of school choice like former Arizona state Sen. Steven Yarborough and LIBRE Initiative president Daniel Garza. 

Founded in 2011, The LIBRE Initiative is a nonpartisan, nonprofit grassroots organization “dedicated to amplifying the voice of the U.S. Hispanic community so it can thrive and contribute to a more prosperous America,” according to the group’s website. 

The LIBRE Initiative started an Arkansas chapter last summer. Arkansas has more than 67,800 Hispanic students, according to the Arkansas Department of Education. The Springdale School District has the most with nearly 10,500.

The LIBRE Initiative and Americans for Prosperity both have received support from the Koch family.

The son of Mexican immigrants, Garza grew up working in the fields and orchards with his parents in California, Nebraska and Washington. As a result, he missed too many days of school to pass the tenth grade and dropped out of public school. 

“How do you deal with somebody with my lifestyle? Public school doesn’t accommodate for somebody like me, so it spit me out,” he said. 

Garza said he felt like a square peg in a round hole, but earning a GED provided a second chance. Garza went to college, became a police officer, a city councilman and White House staffer who served in President George W. Bush’s administration. 

While the United States “is a country of second chances,” Garza questioned why we can’t give kids a first chance. School choice does that, he said.

“It gives our kids an equal playing field,” Garza said. “The parents get to decide where their child will get a quality education. That is how we make progress in our education.”

Speaking on behalf of herself, Ali Noland, an elected member of the Little Rock School District Board of Directors, told the Arkansas Advocate she’s “against privatization policies, often erroneously billed as school choice, because these programs do the opposite of what they promise.”

“They claim to give poor families the same educational opportunities that wealthier families already have, and they’re based on the assumption that private-school education is superior to what’s available in public schools,” Noland said. “Both parts of this are false.” 

Public schools aren’t failing and have prepared many Arkansans for college, career and life, Noland said. Additionally, vouchers don’t cover the full costs of tuition at private schools, institutions that aren’t required to provide transportation, special-education services, or free and reduced meals.

Private schools aren’t always accessible because they often aren’t located in or near rural areas, she said. 

“As a result, instead of helping the students most in need, privatization policies actually just give wealthy families in big cities a taxpayer-funded discount on the private-school tuition they’re already paying,” Noland said. “In order to give a small number of well-off families a kickback, proponents of these policies are willing to reduce the resources available to serve the vast majority of Arkansas students who will continue to attend public schools.” 

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