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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?

Friday, April 17, 2015

A-F Grades: Public Schools vs. Charter Schools

As I said in an earlier post, I generally do not agree with assigning schools an A-F grade (School Performance Grades: What they do and don't do). An A-F grade is an incomplete and misleading way to measure a school.

That said, given the great amount of time and effort that has recently been expended to promote charter school expansion as the solution for academic distress and to transfer public school resources to charter schools, I thought it would be interesting to compare grades traditional public schools received to those received by the state's open-enrollment charter schools. Here is what some simple math calculations yielded:

There are 1,050 schools in the report. 1,017 are traditional public schools and 33 are open-enrollment charter schools. Here is a breakdown of their letter grades:

1,017 Traditional Public Schools

     A                      B                   C                 D                    F
   152                   317                356              158                 34
   15%                 31%              35%            16%               3%

33 Open-Enrollment Charter Schools

    A                      B                    C                 D                    F
    9                       5                     9                  1                    9
   27%                 15%               27%            3%                27%

Percentage of traditional public schools making A, B, or C:  81%

Percentage of open-enrollment charter schools making A, B, or C:  69%

Does posting this data mean that I am against charter schools?  No, and in a later post I plan to explain (for those who don't know) what a charter school is and what role I think charter schools should play in our education system. 

These figures do indicate, though, if a school is not performing as well as it should, making it into a charter might not fix the problem. They should at least inject some skepticism into the blind faith that charters are the answer for everything. They should at least raise the question of whether we should be transferring public assets from traditional public schools to charter schools.

Thursday, April 16, 2015

School Performance Grades: What they do and don't do

The Arkansas Department of Education has just published the new A-F grades for the state's public schools. By my count, there are 1,050 traditional public schools and open-enrollment charter schools listed in this report. The grading system was mandated by Act 696 of 2013. 

Four criteria were used to determine a school's grade:  
  • How well students are performing in math and literacy on statewide tests such as the Benchmark and End of Course exams. 
  • Whether schools are meeting yearly student performance goals and showing improvement or expected growth for all students. 
  • Whether schools are meeting graduation goals for all students and at-risk groups. 
  • Whether the school has an achievement gap and if that gap is sizable.
What the letter grades don't do is measure how well an individual student or teacher is doing or take into consideration other things the school may be doing well, such as meeting students’ nutrition and health needs or how well students are performing in other subject areas. (Source:  Arkansas Department of Education)

For the record,  I generally do not agree with assigning a school an A-F grade. 

For one thing, I don't see that it is helpful; if a parent wants to know how a school is performing, he/she can easily look up the school's performance data and get more useful, in-depth information than the letter grade will show. Instead, letter grades often stigmatize schools that, for a variety of reasons beyond their control but usually associated with lack of resources, are classified as low-achieving. 

For another, the ADE does not specify which of 4 different categories might cause a school's grade to be lower than desired, so stakeholders are left to wonder, for example, whether overall achievement is low, or whether a school (even a high-achieving school) might not be "improving." 

That said, considering we are stuck with them for now, you can find out each school's letter grade here and a simple explanation of what the ADE thinks it means here .

Here is a link to an article in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette with more information and reaction by education stakeholders to the new rating system.

Not My Mother's Public School

My mother walked to school. She carried her lunch, usually cold biscuit and a slice of bacon or ham in a lard bucket. Dry Creek School only had eight grades, but she loved school so much that she took the eighth grade three times. The first time she studied 8th grade arithmetic, the second time algebra, and the third time geometry. Finally, having exhausted the teacher's knowledge and ability to teach and the school's store of textbooks, she moved out into the world, educated by Arkansas standards in 1939. Life intervened, and marriage and children, but when she was in her early 40's she took and passed her high school equivalency exam and attended nursing school, becoming a Licensed Practical Nurse.

Dry Creek School, Searcy County, Arkansas

People often view the present through the lens of the past, either thinking or wishing things were "the way they used to be."  But a lot has changed since 1939, and education is one of them. The goal of this blog is to draw on my experience of 32 years as a teacher in the public schools and 15+ years as an education activist to inform people about and reflect upon the ways that education has changed, continues to change, and needs to change to meet the needs of children, families, and communities in the 21st century. 

Lavina Grandon bio:
Lavina Grandon is a retired teacher with 32 years of experience teaching in public schools.  She earned a Bachelor’s degree in English from College of the Ozarks in 1970 and a Master’s degree from the University of Central Arkansas in 1996.  In 2000 she qualified as a National Board Certified Teacher by the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards. She was named Teacher of the Year by her school and in the Northwest region of Arkansas in 1998, High School Teacher of the Year by Phi Delta Kappa in 2002, Arkansas Rural Teacher of the Year by the Arkansas Rural Education Association in 2004, Arkansas Rural Person of the Year by the Arkansas Times in 2004, and finalist for National Rural Teacher of the Year in 2004. She is currently a board member of Southern Echo, Inc., the Rural Schools Collaborative, and the Valley Springs Foundation, a past board member of the Rural School and Community Trust, and a past member of the Valley Springs School Board.

In 2003-2004 Grandon led the state-wide grass roots opposition to an effort by the Governor of Arkansas and his allies in the Legislature, press, and business community to consolidate any school district with fewer than 1,500 students. As spokesperson for a coalition of grass-roots and rural education interests, Grandon organized local, regional, and state-wide rallies; led a media campaign; produced educational materials; and helped shape a positive reform agenda that led to greater educational equity and adequacy for public school students. This group was successful in getting many of the reforms passed that garnered Arkansas a 5th place overall ranking in Education Week’s  2012 Quality Counts report on the state of education in the nation.  They were able to get the minimum enrollment number reduced from 1,500 to 350 students and still fight to save every rural school they can from consolidation.

To promote quality education for all students, Grandon and other leaders of the grass-roots group formed a permanent advocacy organization, now called Rural Community Alliance, that has more than  1,700 members in 61 local chapters in low-wealth rural communities throughout the state. The purpose of Rural Community Alliance is to empower low-income community members to improve their schools and their communities, creating a better quality of life and more opportunity for themselves and their children. The organization uses an intergenerational model of organizing, engaging community members from the youngest to the oldest. RCA  works in state, regional, and national coalitions to promote education quality and equity as well as rural prosperity.

After retiring from teaching in 2007, Grandon became the President and Policy and Education Director of Rural Community Alliance. She leads the organization’s education advocacy in issues its members determine to be important to them as well as several issue campaigns of which the organization is a part:  The Arkansas Opportunity to Learn Campaign, the Arkansas Grade-Level Reading Campaign, and the national Formula Fairness Campaign. Currently the group is advocating for expanded pre-K opportunities, after-school and summer learning programs, increased parent and community involvement, improved teacher and administrator preparation, the Arkansas Dream Act, and opposition to unlimited charter schools and vouchers.

Grandon is married with two grown children and four grandchildren.