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Wednesday, March 21, 2018

What recent 529 legislation says about the Arkansas Legislature

Last week in special session, the Republican-led Legislature speedily approved changes to Arkansas law to grant a tax break to people who send their children to private school, proving that they care more about their fanatical devotion to "free market" education than to their constitutionally mandated duty to "ever maintain a general, suitable, and efficient system of free public schools" (Arkansas Constitution, emphasis added).

The private school need not meet any standards. You may send your kids to one of the prestigious Little Rock academies where, they say, 100% of their graduates go on to college, or you may send them to a small church school in rural Arkansas with 11 students and not one certified teacher, or any of the range of possibilities in between.

These schools may not have student diversity, offer a challenging curriculum, boast highly qualified teachers, provide enrichment or extracurricular activities, or serve special needs children. Despite this roundabout subsidy from the state, these schools are not required to take or pass any tests, provide adequate facilities, or show student progress. Under the new law if you send your children to a private school, good or bad, you will be eligible to write off up to $10,000 of income for each child, potentially saving yourself $2,000-$3,000 in taxes.

How did this happen? Arkansas lawmakers were aligning Arkansas tax code to recent changes in the federal tax code with respect to so-called 529 Savings Plans.

These 529 Savings Plans were created in 1996 as an incentive for people to save for their children's college education. As created, an individual could set up an account and put as much as $14,000 a year in it tax-free, with no penalty unless the money was withdrawn early or for some purpose other than the beneficiary's qualified post-secondary education. The idea was that over an 18-year period, a family could save up enough for college at most four-year institutions.

However, as part of the Trump administration's drive to elevate "school choice" and the "free-market competition" model for education, in the January 2018 tax code overhaul 529 plans were given a new purpose and much broader scope.

Now instead of being a college savings instrument, 529 plans can be a means of funneling K-12 private school tuition costs through an account that makes them tax-free. Where before an early withdrawal meant paying income tax and penalties on the deposits, now the funds can be deposited and withdrawn after only 30 days (or sooner if allowed by the three-person regulating committee), with the deposited amount--up to $10,000--being deducted from the account holder's adjusted gross income, therefore, non-taxable.

It is worth observing here that not all legislators were eager to endorse this "tax break for the wealthy," as some have called it. Many resisted through several votes on the measure at the end of the fiscal session before giving in to the bill sponsors' persuasions that they "must align Arkansas tax policy to federal tax policy." This is clearly a fallacious argument, however, as there are numerous instances where Arkansas tax policy differs from federal tax policy. One example is the Earned Income Tax Credit, which is available for the working poor at the federal level but not at the state level.

Governor Asa Hutchinson supported the measure while expressing mild reservations about its effect on future state revenues.

The 529 bill (or Act 8 of the Second Extraordinary Session of the 91st General Assembly), being purely a tax break for families that send their children to private schools, is not by any means as pernicious as the hard-fought SB746 from last year's regular legislative session, which ultimately failed. That bill set up tax-free "education savings accounts" that were eligible for use in K-12 private schools, virtual schools, and home schooling. It even included extra incentives for moving students from public schools to private schools. Some lawmakers have vowed to bring this bill back in the 2019 session, making Act 8 just the "foot in the door" to eventually achieving a full-out voucher system.

So why are the new 529 accounts bad for Arkansas and what do they say about the Arkansas Legislature?

1. While not qualifying as a true voucher program, the director of advancement of a prestigious private school admits that "it's an option that mostly affects affluent families" ( It's not a benefit that would be available to the nearly 24% of Arkansas children who are below poverty level.

2. It is expected to cost more than $5 million in state revenue in just the first year, in addition to setting up additional bureaucracy to run the program.

3. They turn what has been a savings program into what looks like a glorified money laundering scheme to create large chunks of tax-free income for wealthy families.

4. They promote and validate unregulated private-school choices that may not be serving children well. Some legislators never met a "choice" they didn't like except the state's highly regulated and accountable public education system.

5. Act 8 shows that the Republican-led Legislature, which since they became the majority in 2013 have been increasingly reluctant to fund public education to the level deemed necessary by its own Joint Adequacy Committee, will bend over backwards to encourage any kind of "choice," including tax breaks for private school tuition, virtually removing the cap on charter schools, reassigning supposedly "unused or underused" public school facilities to charter schools, and funding the state's virtual charter school at the same level as brick and mortar schools.

6. The Legislature has money to give tax breaks for private school tuition but none for additional pre-K slots, teacher raises or affordable health care for teachers, or full funding for the special education catastrophic fund. They have established and generously added to charter school facilities funding while the public school facilities fund is woefully underfunded, even though public schools are held to a high standard that makes building new facilities very expensive.

The new 529 legislation is not the worst thing that could have happened to public education in Arkansas, but it is a sign that many Arkansas lawmakers are willing to follow the lead of ideologues who would like to change our education system from a highly accountable public model that serves all children with adequacy and equity as its guide to an entrepreneurial model where the "free market" decides winners and losers. All too often in such a case, the entrepreneurs win and the kids--and eventually the taxpayers--

Thursday, January 11, 2018

VIRTUALly Unchained

One fast-growing sector of the charter school movement is online "virtual" schools. Many students enroll in these schools to complete their entire program of study online. Other traditional students may take just one or two classes to augment their usual school curriculum.

Arkansas' main on-line charter school is the Arkansas Virtual Academy.  Last spring the state's Charter Authorizing Panel approved the Arkansas Virtual Academy to add 1,000 students, making it eligible to enroll 3,000 students in the 2017-18 school year.

On-line learning... That should be a good thing... We all like our digital devices, right? Except....

According to the Arkansas Times, the Arkansas Virtual Academy "has been unable for months to provide a consistent and accurate enrollment count" and scores below state averages on achievement tests at nearly every grade level.

In fact, StartClass, an education research group that evaluates schools across the country, rated the Arkansas Virtual Academy at a 4 on a scale of 10, where the average score for U.S. schools is 6. StartClass notes that the AVA's student-teacher ratio is 34:1 compared to traditional Arkansas schools' 14:1. Student performance is markedly lower in the Arkansas Virtual Academy, with students scoring a 17% pass rate in math compared to 27% for students in more traditional settings. The English Language Arts score was somewhat more equal with the AVA students scoring 30% passing compared to 32% from students in the rest of the state.

Yet the Arkansas Virtual Academy does just fine financially. It gets more than $6,000 in state dollars per student (the same amount as traditional public schools), meaning it will get $6 million more per year with its higher enrollment cap. This in spite of the fact that, as the Arkansas Times points out, "it has no gyms, band rooms, cafeterias, bus systems, or faculty commensurate with those of brick-and-mortar school districts."

The Arkansas Virtual Academy gets much of its academic programming and infrastructure from an out-of-state private, for-profit corporation. According to financial reports, the Arkansas Virtual Academy paid $7.8 million of its $10.7 million in annual state revenue to its "third-party management agent," K12, of Herndon, VA.

Almost 90% of K12's income comes from state and federal tax dollars, and the company has been criticized by watchdog groups and its own stockholders for "lamentable academic performance" while paying its executives multi-millions of dollars. Its top five executives received more than $12 million in compensation in 2015. Another criticism of K12 is that it spends millions of taxpayer dollars lobbying state and federal governments for (you guessed it) more access to students and more funding. K12 no longer discloses its advertising budget, but in 2012 it spent $20 million on ads to attract students, funding, perks, and favors.

Despite being the darling of school choice advocates, on-line charter schools like Arkansas Virtual Academy get poor ratings from education researchers who study such things. A report from Stanford University's Center for Research of Education Outcomes found that online charters do a very poor job of educating children. In general, students in online charters lose 42 days of reading instruction a year and 180 days of math instruction. (There are only 180 days of instruction in most public school years.)

According to Education Week, a study of Colorado's online charter school revealed that just 24% of students use the learning software each day. A program called "FAST and Furious" allows students to earn a year's worth of credit for a week of work. The school's leader helped direct millions of taxpayer dollars to his own for-profit management company. Unfortunately, this type of behavior is not atypical of online charter schools.

If it were a traditional public school, the Arkansas Virtual Academy would be under strict scrutiny--and probably sanctions--by the Arkansas Department of Education for poor test scores and slip-shod financial management. As a charter school, however, it is largely exempt from rules that govern traditional schools and allowed to go its own way, even rewarded with state permission to increase its enrollment.

Monday, December 5, 2016

Unqualified to Serve

The Detroit Free Press has just written a piece on the DeVos family's funding of failed school choice experiments in the Detroit area. You can find the whole article here .

Some revealing quotes from the article indicate....

.... that the charter school lobby is driven, not by research or data, but by an ideology that says every government function would be improved by applying "free-market" principles:  "This deeply dysfunctional educational landscape [in Detroit] — where failure is rewarded with opportunities for expansion and "choice" means the opposite for tens of thousands of children — is no accident. It was created by an ideological lobby that has zealously championed free-market education reform for decades, with little regard for the outcome." 

.... that while traditional public schools are held to ever higher standards, charter schools are given a pass on performance: "On the west side, another charter school, Hope Academy, has been serving the community around Grand River and Livernois for 20 years. Its test scores have been among the lowest in the state throughout those two decades; in 2013 the school ranked in the first percentile, the absolute bottom for academic performance. Two years later, its charter was renewed."

.... that ultra-rich pro-privatization advocates like the DeVos family use their wealth to buy legislative actions that undermine traditional public schools and grease the wheels for proliferation of unaccountable charters: "The DeVoses have helped private interests commandeer public money that was intended to fulfill the state's mandate to provide compulsory education. The family started the Great Lakes Education Project, whose political action committee does the most prolific and aggressive lobbying for charter schools. Betsy DeVos and other family members have given more than $2 million to the PAC since 2001. GLEP has spent that money essentially buying policy outcomes that have helped Michigan's charter industry grow while shielding it from accountability.This summer, the DeVos family contributed $1.45 million over two months — an astounding average of $25,000 a day — to Michigan GOP lawmakers and the state party after the Republican-led Legislature derailed a bipartisan provision that would have provided more charter school oversight in Detroit."

....that the choice of Betsy DeVos for Secretary of Education is not only inappropriate because of her ties to the privatization lobby, but illogical, given the fact that she has never been an educator nor acquired any credentials that would qualify her to hold the position: "DeVos isn’t an educator, or an education leader. She’s not an expert in pedagogy or curriculum or school governance. In fact, she has no relevant credentials or experience for a job setting standards and guiding dollars for the nation’s public schools."

Everyone who reads this should contact their Senators and ask them to vote against DeVos' confirmation as Education Secretary. And Republicans who are endorsing her, shame on you for the double standard of claiming to be for "good government" while blindly accepting the nomination of an unqualified lobbyist for privatization for the position of overseeing the federal government's involvement in the nation's public schools.

Thursday, May 12, 2016

Now is the time for all good men....

     Having been an English teacher for 32 years, I often think in quotations. A number of them have been running through my mind in recent days as I follow the events unfolding in Little Rock, where citizen-activists are trying to take back their school district from the jaws of the leviathan, aka the State Board of Education.
      First was the saying that I typed over and over again as a high school junior learning to use a keyboard:  "Now is the time for all good men to come to the aid of their country." (emphasis mine) Yes, the time is now; the call to action is for all. There are some things that, if they are lost, you can never regain. If we don't act now to stop the encroachment of unelected state bureaucrats and political appointees on our rights to educate our children in our communities in schools overseen by our democratically elected representatives, we may soon be too late to stop the government steamroller.
      Remember, "All it takes for evil to prevail is for good men to do nothing." Americans (and Arkansans) are not powerless victims of our government. We are not sheep. Our history and our national DNA empower us to resist evil, resist tyranny, be unaccepting of the attitude that "Big Brother" knows best. We need to stand up for our rights and the rights of others who are also fighting this battle.
      That brings me to the last quotation that has been ringing through my consciousness, by the 16th century poet and theologian John Donne:  "No man is an island entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main." Even though I live 130 miles from Little Rock and my school district is a different as can be from LRSD, it still behooves me to #StandUp4LR too, because we are all one state, because our education budget comes from the same pot of money, because the same treatment that is meted out to them today can be meted out to me and my school tomorrow, because they are fighting on the front lines of the battle against charter schools (that educate some) draining funding from traditional public schools (that educate all), because it is the right thing to do.

     To all of you who love public schools, who feel that public education is the great equalizer in our country, who know that traditional public schools provide the best opportunity for the most students--gird up your loins, polish your weapons and your armor, get ready for action, for there's a battle coming and it's for the future of our children and our communities. We can no longer accept the narrative (lie) that public schools are failing; that "government" schools exist only to brainwash children with a liberal agenda; that "choice" is the magic formula that will send every child to Harvard, or at least deliver him from an evil system. We have been inactive too long and now the wolf is at the door. Wake up! Get involved! Join the fight! 

      This hasn't been the most polished post, but it is heartfelt. I'll leave you with the words (from a press release responding to the State Board of Education's lackluster response to appeals from a large number of LRSD patrons to deal more fairly with them and the district) of Bill Kopsky, a Little Rock Public Schools parent who is in the thick of the fight to return that district to local control:
Concerned citizens flooded the state board of education meeting today to #StandUp4LR and voice their concerns to the board and Commissioner Johnny Key about school closures, privatization, improving academic achievement and the lack of community engagement on destabilizing decisions that continue to rock our schools and our city.  
This meeting came just after Commissioner Key granted a waiver to a low performing charter school that missed the deadline to request approval to expand and relocate in Little Rock. It is also the same week that LISA Academy sent an enrollment mailer that excluded low income neighborhoods and neighborhoods with high minority populations.
The Arkansas Board of Education’s response to the citizen outcry was tepid. They passed two motions. One creating a Civic Advisory Board and the other hastening a review of academic progress, but it is simply not enough.
The State Department of Education neglected the Civic Advisory Council, and residents have little reason to have faith that the new Civic Advisory Board will be treated with any more respect. Board member Chambers stated that we should have community forums, which we should, but the Civic Advisory Council has already had a series of forums which Commissioner Key and the State Board ignored. The process of state control of any school district has been made illegitimate by the bungling of the situation in Little Rock in a rush toward an agenda of school privatization and segregation.
Reforms the State Board could enact which would have real meaning moving forward would be:
  • Implementing a moratorium on charter schools in Arkansas until there is greater evidence of their value, until their problems with segregation can be addressed by creating more transparent and accountable enrollment processes, and until there is a comprehensive plan on how they will integrate with existing public school structures without wasting taxpayer dollars by duplicating services in some areas, while ignoring the parts of our city with the most need.
  • The State Board of Education should hold monthly hearings on enrolment at LISA Academy, eStem and other charter schools about the demographics of their enrolment and their outreach strategies.
  • The State Board should insist that the staff at ADE and the LRSD create a process on how they will handle school closures that are likely due to budget cuts. How will those decisions be made? How will the community be able to inform those decisions? How can those decisions be made that ensure the principle of quality and equitable educational opportunities for ALL students in the district? The expansion of charter schools will only accelerate the drive to close more schools in Little Rock -- the State Board and Commissioner Key need to hold community meetings where they meet directly with impacted students, families, staff and neighborhoods.
  • The State Board should create a clear, transparent, and accelerated path back to the local control of an elected school board. The State Department and Board of Education’s actions have proven the state is either unable or unwilling to making decisions in our children’s best interests.   
  • The State Board should convene a committee to look the existing consensus on research proven strategies that improve student outcomes.The Department's attention should be focused on those areas instead of divisive battles on discredited privatization. There are research based reforms we already know will work. Student achievement would start rising tomorrow if we implemented them today. PreK, nutrition and afterschool programs are just a few of the things we should be investing in, rather than polarizing and segregating experiments.  
  • Finally it is time for Commissioner Key to resign or be replaced. He has rigged the process to favor an ideological agenda of privatizing public schools despite a mountain of evidence of the harm it would do to Little Rock’s students and community. He has made unaccountable and non-transparent decisions about our Superintendent, about approving charter school expansions, about hiring unlicensed novice teachers to serve in the neediest schools and more. He has broken the public’s trust and simply has no remaining credibility to lead the Department. 

Sunday, May 31, 2015

Will There Be Justice for Hughes?

In a monstrous (but sadly not atypical) act of injustice at its April meeting, the State Board of Education denied the Hughes School District access to the recently created Act 60 waiver, despite the fact that the district is not in academic, fiscal, or facilities distress. Instead, the Board voted to consolidate the small, rural, mostly black school district with the 6,000 student district of West Memphis, 30 miles away.

The Hughes School District has filed an appeal of the State Board of Education’s decision in St. Francis County Circuit Court. A hearing has been set for 10:00 a.m. on June 8 in the St. Francis County Courthouse.

According to attorney James Valley, the complaint challenges the consolidation on a number of grounds.  First, the Arkansas Department of Education’s own records showed that the district had 354 students, which is above the statutory minimum of 350 students. 

The lawsuit also challenges the Arkansas Department of Education’s decision to continue to classify the district as being fiscally distressed and using that designation as a reason to deny it a waiver from the 350-student minimum that is now allowed by state law. In the complaint, the Hughes School District points out that its balance has grown over the past three years from approximately $500,000 to almost $1.5 million. The district is also likely to get back about $250,000 being held in escrow since it recently was vindicated in court against three claims of discrimination from former employees and won part of its appeal to the 8th Circuit Court of Appeals in St. Louis, MO.

Additionally, the district points out it has been held to a different standard than other districts. The ADE and the State Board of Education said the district failed to have a “clean audit,” which meant it remained fiscally distressed. However, the ADE and SBE released Western Yell County, Brinkley, Alpena, and Hermitage from fiscal distress status in spite of the fact that the districts did not have clean audits.

Finally, the petition points out that Act 377 of 2015, which allowed for waivers, had an emergency clause, which could only have affected the Hughes School District since it was the only district on this year’s consolidation list.  Representative Charlotte Douglas testified to the State Board of Education that she asked that the emergency clause be added so that it could save Hughes. 

Hughes School District Attorney James Valley denounced the decision by the Arkansas Department of Education and the State Board. He said, “The Arkansas Department of Education and the State Board of Education have acted in dubious fashion in their zeal to take over and shut down as many public school districts as they can.  Hughes should not have been on the consolidation list because the ADE’s own record show it had 354 students. Additionally, the department forced the district to drop students from the roll when It should not have done so.”

Valley added, “It seems that the district was only kept in fiscal distress because there was a coordinated plan to make sure Hughes was shut down. At least four other districts in the last two years have been released from fiscal distress despite having audits that were similar to Hughes’s. In fact, Hughes is probably in better financial shape than most of the small school districts in the state and many of the larger ones. On the fiscal distress issue, the ADE is at best inconsistent and making it up as they go along and at worst hypocritical and consciously seeking to decimate the Hughes community and its school district because it can’t pick leadership that it likes.”

Continuing, Valley said, “Finally, the SBE and ADE had testimony that it was the intent of the legislature to save Hughes by adding the emergency clause. If it had not been, there would have been no need for an emergency clause on Act 377 because Hughes was the only district on the consolidation list subject to immediate closure. It is my hope that the court will put a halt to these arbitrary and capricious actions that clearly are motivated by something other than the law and the children in the Hughes School District.”

West Memphis school officials have said they plan to immediately close the Hughes campus and bus the students (pre-K through 12th grade) to various campuses in the city of West Memphis, a daily journey of at least 30 miles. 

If ever there was a case that illustrates the bias of those in power against small/poor/rural/black, this is it. Listed among the state's most rapidly improving districts academically, with a strong and growing financial balance, with excellent leadership, and with strong community support, Hughes deserves a second look both by the court and by the State Board. Will there be justice for Hughes?

Wednesday, April 29, 2015

The More Things Change...ForwARd's strategic plan and previous education reform efforts

The French have a saying, "The more things change, the more they remain the same."  I was reminded of this truth recently when I ran across a 2002 article from the Arkansas Democrat Gazette detailing then Governor Mike Huckabee's proposal for improving education in Arkansas. 

As I read through the 39-point plan (yes, 39!), I thought of the work of the 30+ educators, business people, philanthropists, and community advocates who are currently putting together the ForwARd Arkansas strategic plan for education. How hard we've worked! How much we've studied and learned! How carefully we've tried to balance what is possible with what needs to be! How hopeful we are that this time, this time, we'll make a difference, we'll design the plan that will create the education system our children need and deserve!

So, Huckabee's plan? It was divided into eight categories. Under Professional Staff Accountability and Compensation, he wanted teacher pay tied to performance and to make it easier to fire teachers who "do not meet accountability criteria." He recommended additional pay for teaching in shortage areas like math and science or in academically distressed schools and professional development based on state standards/curriculum. He wanted to send high schools the bill for students who had to take remedial college classes. (Yes, Johnny sleeps through English and Math class and skips school three days a week but wakes up one day and decides he's college material. Let's make the high school pay for his remediation!) But don't let the students off scot free either. If a student doesn't graduate from college within 6 years (No matter what might happen in his life!) his scholarships should be paid back. 

Under Academic Standards, Curriculum and Teaching Methods, institute annual testing and track student growth, monitor schools to see that they teach the mandated curriculum, include mentoring as part of teacher preparation, allow state intervention when schools aren't performing well, require consequences for students who don't test well, increase high school course requirements, expand concurrent credit, make entry criteria for college more rigorous, offer remedial courses in two-year colleges only, and align  curricula between high school and post-secondary institutions.

Under Communicating Results to All Stakeholders, the Governor advised expanding the School Report Card system; providing performance data on students, grade levels, classroom teachers, and schools; providing school-to-school and district-to-district comparisons; establish guidelines for high school counselors for communicating needed information to students; and developing relationships between college recruiters and high schools.

Broadening the State's Charter School Law was seen as necessary to enhance school choice alternatives by increasing the number of charter schools, developing facilities funding for charter schools, giving charter schools flexibility while holding them to rigorous standards, and encouraging more authorizers of charter schools.

Financial Reporting would be improved by establishing spending categories, publishing results, and setting a standard for what percentage of funds would be used for classroom instruction.

Improved Pre-school and Health Care Access for Children contained the following recommendations:  Assure access to Head Start, ABC, or other education-based quality pre-school programs; increase phonics-based reading opportunities for pre-school-age children; increase adult literacy; and increase readiness to learn by improving access and utilization of basic health care, with attention given to visual, aural, and dental health as well as basic health care. (Note:  Few of these capacity building strategies have been implemented.)

Huckabee had a whole category for infusing the curriculum with opportunities for students to become proficient in art, music, theater, or other fine arts and another one for developing partnerships between education and business and industry.

Where did Huckabee's ideas for education "reform" come from? Many were proposed by the Murphy Commission in 1998, and others came from the 2002 reform flavor of the decade, the Arkansas Blue Ribbon Commission for Education. 

Some of Huckbee's proposals were good, some not so good. Several have been implemented; many were not.  Thirteen years later do we have an education system that will assure opportunity for all and a pathway that will lift children out of poverty and our state into economic prosperity? 

Obviously not, or we wouldn't need the ForwARd Arkansas strategic plan for education, which will be released in a few weeks and which will contain some of the recommendations of previous reform efforts as well as some new ones that are hopefully more helpful.

Maybe it's just that education systems, like people, have to continually change and grow. Or maybe we haven't invested enough yet to get the results we want. Maybe there are important areas that we have overlooked (like building capacity) while overly focusing on other areas (like accountability). 

Whatever it is, please don't let this plan be like those of the past, where only the easy parts or only the punitive parts or only the cheap parts were implemented and the ones that required investment and thoughtful, careful, collaborative development were neglected.  Please, this time, let us get it right, balance accountability with support, and invest what is needed. Our children are depending on us. Our communities are depending on us. Our state is depending on us. 

Monday, April 20, 2015

2015 Education Legislation: What Passed and What Didn't

According to the Arkansas Department of Education, when legislators of the 90th General Assembly adjourn sine die on Wednesday, April 22, they will have enacted more than 42 new laws dealing with education in one way or another.

What passed:
Actually, that's not as dramatic as it sounds. Nearly half of those laws were appropriations for different purposes administered by the Department of Education.  In case you have a special interest in any of them, here they are in abbreviated form.  For more information on a specific act, you can click "Search Acts" in the left-hand menu of the website.
Act 291  Arkansas School for the Deaf appropriation
Act 158  Division of Public School Academic Facilities and Transportation appropriation
Act 627  Arkansas State Library and Encyclopedia of Arkansas History and Culture Project appropriation
Act 628  Department of Education appropriation
Act 665  Grants for an Arts Enriched Curriculum appropriation
Act 735  Open-Enrollment Public Charter School Facilities Funding appropriation
Act 747  Grant for Teach for America appropriation
Act 789  Division of Public School Academic Facilities and Transportation appropriation
Act 807  Arkansas Better Chance appropriation
Act 814  Academic Enrichment for Gifted/Talented in Summer Programs appropriation
Act 513  Expenses of the Commission on Closing the Achievement Gap appropriation
Act 610  Teach for America and the Arkansas Academic Roadmap appropriation
Act 436  Breakfast Nutritional Programs in Public Schools appropriation
Act 617  Educational Television Division appropriation
Act 157  School for the Blind appropriation
Act 318  Arkansas State Library appropriation
Act 332  Arkansas School Recognition Program appropriation
Act 331  Department of Education appropriation
Act 196  Arkansas School for the Deaf appropriation
Act 190  Educational Television appropriation
Act 189  Department of Education Capital Projects appropriation

Other education acts cover such widely varying topics as prevention and/or reporting of child abuse, school board elections, school vacations in a 12 month calendar, school improvement plans, cursive writing, inclement weather days, school board training, isolated funding, school choice, school leadership, concealed handguns, and teacher professional development days. 

Some of the more important changes in education law wrought by the 90th General Assembly include:
  • Act 372, which makes it easier to detach territory from an existing school district in order to form a new district. This important legislation probably needs to be further liberalized so that disparate communities in mega-districts can break away and form smaller, more responsive school districts if they so choose.
  • Act 377, which provides a waiver from consolidation or annexation of a district with less than 350 enrollment if it otherwise is academically and fiscally sound. This mitigates the effects of the infamous Act 60, which has closed 100 small schools since 2004.
  • Act 187, Governor Hutchinson's pet project of lifting up technology learning, requires each high school to offer a course in computer science. This new law has already garnered Arkansas national attention from some tech companies.
  • Act 560, which changes the deadline for school choice applications from June 1 to May 1.
  • Act 525, which reduces the qualifications for a person to serve as Commissioner of Education.
  • Act 1087, which raises the minimum teacher salary schedule. 
  • Act 1286, which establishes a pilot program for K-12 agriculture schools.
  • Act 1240, which allows a school district to be granted the same waivers that are granted to an open-enrollment charter school that draws students from the district.
What didn't pass:
Sometimes the things that don't pass are just as important as the things that do. Two charter school bills and a voucher bill were stopped by determined opposition, saving public education in our state from far-reaching consequences.  

HB1733 would have dumped all schools on Academic Distress into an Achievement School District, where they would have been farmed out to unaccountable charter companies that would have also been given access to all of their public assets. This bill addressed none of the underlying causes of academic distress but just (mis)placed blind faith in similar failed projects in New Orleans and Memphis. 

SB847 proposed a "right of access" for open-enrollment charter schools to any public school facility that the Director of the Division of Public School Academic Facilities and Transportation wanted to declare "unused" or "underutilized" by the school district to which it belonged. This would have created a huge transfer of wealth from public schools to open-enrollment charter schools encroaching on their territory without any consideration of the rights of the taxpayers who paid for those facilities.

HB1593 would have created a private school voucher program that allowed 65% of the minimum foundation aid per pupil now paid to a public school district to be paid to a private school of the student's choice. That bill was ultimately tabled by its sponsor.

Fortunately, these bills that would have seriously undermined the funding and structure of our public education system were stopped. Unfortunately, also stopped were serious funding increases for pre-K programs, funding for after-school and summer programs, and legislation to allow public schools onto the state-funded fiber network. While adding a small amount to the state's minimum teacher salary schedule (after 7 years of no raise), the Legislature failed to fully fund the increase and failed to address regional disparities in teacher pay which make it difficult for schools in some parts of the state to attract and retain good teachers. No attempt was made to provide teachers with affordable health insurance.

As we leave the regular session of the 90th General Assembly behind and look toward the future, it's important to realize that reforms put in place by the Lake View settlement have given Arkansas the potential for creating a world-class education system. However, a "free public education" won't come cheap. Will we be willing to pay the price to give our children the education system they need and deserve?