LITTLE ROCK — Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush advocated expanding charter schools in Arkansas on Tuesday and threw his support behind a bill in the Legislature that would take authority to approve charter schools away from the state Board of Education and give it to an independent commission.
At a rally at the state Capitol, Bush called access to a quality education the civil rights issue of our time. He invoked the specter of the 1957 desegregation crisis at Little Rock Central High School, in which President Dwight Eisenhower ordered the 101st Airborne Division into Little Rock to escort nine black students into the city’s flagship all-white high school.
"Fifty-six years after the Little Rock Nine, our most disadvantaged kids are the ones least likely to receive a quality education. But they’re the ones who need it the most," Bush said.
He championed charter schools in speaking for more education options for parents and more competition in schools.
"Our children can’t wait for plodding, incremental change," he said. "We need disruptive change. We need to invest in new ideas, new approaches in education."
Bush was the featured speaker at the rally organized by A Plus Arkansas, a coalition of groups advocating for more choices in education for students and parents.
Speaking to reporters later, Bush endorsed House Bill 1040 by Rep. Mark Biviano, R-Searcy. Gov. Mike Beebe has said he opposes the bill, which has not yet been taken up in committee.
Under the bill, the governor, House speaker, Senate president pro tem, chairman of the House Education Committee and chairman of the Senate Education Committee would each appoint one member to a five-member state Public Charter School Commission.
"My experience around the country is that an independent statewide authorizer in all likelihood will not be used that much, but it will instill some discipline in local school districts not to just reject out of hand high-quality charter schools," said Bush, brother of former President George W. Bush.
Bush said the means of providing children with an education is not as important as the results.
"I know here the focus this year is on public school choice, and that’s great. Ultimately, if you move to a student-centered system, the delivery system is less relevant and it’s how children learn and their success that should be, really, the entire focus," he said.
Bush said the current public school model "may have worked 100 years ago, but it is increasingly less relevant."
Biviano welcomed Bush’s support of his bill.
"He’s got a lot of experience at this. He’s certainly seen success in his state," the lawmaker said.
The National Alliance for Public Charter Schools released a report Tuesday that ranked states according to their laws’ supportiveness of charter schools. The report ranked Florida fifth and Arkansas 25th.
Beebe has said Biviano’s bill would create an unnecessary bureaucracy.
"I think the state board has been judicious and has progressed with thoughtful consideration" in approving charter schools, the governor said last week during the "Ask the Governor" program televised by the Arkansas Educational Television Network.
Tuesday’s rally kicked off a day of activities organized by A Plus Arkansas. Also scheduled Tuesday were a luncheon and a summit on education reform at the Doubletree Hotel.
The events were scheduled to coincide with National School Choice Week.