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Questions raised regarding expanded school choice in Arkansas

Transportation, finances, athletics and student retention are just a few discussion topics regarding full-school choice, and districts have questions.

BAUXITE, Ark. — The potential of full-school choice is a popular topic in Arkansas and school districts are starting to raise questions regarding logistics.

Bauxite Public Schools Superintendent Matt Donaghy is used to knowing what to do, but this potential option has left him with more questions than answers.

"There's just a lot of unknowns that we're concerned with at this point," Donaghy said.

Currently, Arkansas has school choice, but not as open as what's proposed. The Public School Choice Act of 2015 allowed school choice in its current form.

"It's nice because there is that opportunity for parents to choose, but it's much more controlled," Donaghy said.

Under an expansion effort supported by Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders, parents in Arkansas would be able to choose any school they'd like for their students to attend. Any number of students could move on to other districts if their families choose.

"Empowering our parents is one of the most critical things that we can do when it comes to a child's education," Sanders said at a school choice rally earlier this month.

That could leave schools in a tough spot, especially when it comes to planning for things like classrooms and staff.

"With the possibility that people can be coming and going at all times," Donaghy said. "It's very concerning."

It's an even odder spot for districts like Bauxite, which sits less than three miles from Bryant Junior High.

For Donaghy, that could be a concern for student retention.

"I'm afraid that with the school choice, it may widen the gaps between the haves and the have-nots," Donaghy said.

Other issues, like transportation, are also at the top of Donaghy's mind. House Bill 1205 would require any school accepting state funding to provide transportation for any student within 35 miles of the school, which could help ease some concerns.

However, Donaghy said it could create a logistical nightmare as some students within the 35-mile range may not reside anywhere close to an established bus route.

Of course, not every district feels this way. 

Jessica Duff, a spokesperson for PCSSD, said they're also speaking with their legislators just like Donaghy.

Since nothing official has happened with school choice yet, they're just keeping an eye on things.

"What happens in the future, we can be as ready as we can," Duff said. "There's nothing that we can actually do... right now outside of preparation for the upcoming school year."

Since this is still in the works, Bauxite is in the same boat, but it won't stop Donaghy from thinking about the future.

"We have to budget for years in advance and plan for the future," Donaghy said. "The unknown has a lot of people concerned, and rightfully so."

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