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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?

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