Little Rock, AR --The Panel is strengthening its efforts to ensure a better future for public education through proven reforms, rather than unproven experiments.

A group of panel organizers and the Panel Board Chair attended a national education reform conference in New Jersey. The event focused on ways to improve public education by engaging parents and building community support for proven education reform.

The conference was built around the stories of states facing a push for privatization. Charter schools can, and often do provide children with a great education. However, the push for expansion of these schools has not played out well in other states.

“Charter schools were first conceived as laboratories for innovation, and the idea was to see what kind of great ideas work, and then to scale it out to the broader public,” said Ana Phakin, the Panel’s Deputy Director of Education Organizing. “We support this traditional use as a way to find new and better ways to educate our kids. Unfortunately these aren’t the type of schools being replicated.”

Student outcomes have failed to improve in other public school districts and schools in distress that were privatized. New Orleans, Philadelphia, Memphis and a few other communities have tried educational experiments with expanded charter schools.

An objective analysis of these experiments shows that student performance did not improve, and overall charter schools perform no better than traditional public schools. But privatizing public schools creates other problems such as loss of local control, less civic engagement and growing inequality of opportunity.

“Looking at the situations in other states, it’s hard to believe Arkansas lawmakers are even considering charter school expansion,”said Curtis Mangrum, Chair of the Panel’s Board. “We want to keep the debate focused on the reforms that we know will help our students. Unfortunately privatizing public education, despite it’s broken track record, is a nationwide agenda. It’s an organized—and well funded— campaign by big businesses looking to tap into our education dollars.”

The timing of the conference couldn’t have been better. The Citizens First Congress, Arkansas Opportunity to Learn Campaign and a diverse group of education advocates joined students and parents during the 2015 session to defeat an attempt to hand public schools over to private corporations.

“Some of the things that are happening now in Arkansas were things that happened in places like New Orleans, Chicago and New Jersey,” Mangrum said. “It opened my eyes to the fact that we are just at the infancy of this struggle.”

Although the community reaction forced lawmakers to kill the bill this session, Phakhin said informing and engaging the people of Arkansas remains vitally important.

“Not all charter schools are bad, and not all public schools are super awesome,” she said. “There’s a lot of gray areas there, and one of the reasons—not the main one—but one of the reasons privatization is happening is because people are dissatisfied with public education. We need to stay focused on the proven reforms that will boost learning for all students.”

There are far better alternatives to privatization for improving Arkansas schools and we’re already doing some of them in Arkansas. Overall the state has one of the fastest improving education systems in the country because we have deliberately built consensus around research proven strategies to boost learning.

“Research shows pre-K, summer and afterschool programs are some of the best ways to improve student outcomes,” Phakhin said. “Parent, student and community engagement is key. Proper special education, improving teacher quality and helping students with hunger and health problems are all proven to boost learning, but we are not doing enough to make sure they are used effectively.”

To continue the push for research based solutions, Arkansans must build a widespread coalition, including parents, teachers and administrators. At the conference, presenters shared successful education organizing strategies being used around the country.

“The success of organizing is based on building relationships instead of specific issues,” said David Cook, the CFC Outreach Coordinator. “We need to continue developing partners and be sure to keep them informed and engaged.”

“We have to all be working on this,” Phakhin said. “Public education is something that’s accessible to all kids. It doesn’t matter where you are, where you’re from, public schools must serve every kid that comes through the door. Together we can make sure the public education system survives and thrives.”