Two political rallies in January illustrated two competing visions regarding the future of Arkansas schools. The State Board of Education is in the middle of that debate.
On Jan. 29, supporters of greater school choice opportunities and more charter schools brought former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush to Little Rock. Supporters of such policies include some of the state’s business elite such as Jim Walton of the Walton family and Walter Hussman, owner of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. Many Republican legislators also side with this viewpoint.
The next day, a coalition of traditional public school supporters held a competing rally to voice their concerns that increased choice and competition will lead to inequitable schools, particularly for students without the means to transfer. That coalition included the Arkansas Association of Educational Administrators; the Arkansas Education Association, which represents teachers; and the Arkansas School Boards Association.
Some reformers believe the traditionalists are too entrenched and too unwilling to experiment. Some traditionalists believe the reformers are trying to privative schools. The disconnect between those two groups will continue to color education policy moving forward.
On many pubic education issues in Arkansas, the divide occurs roughly along party lines – Republicans tend to be more reformist; Democrats more traditional. While the Legislature is becoming increasingly Republican, all members of the State Board of Education were appointed by Gov. Mike Beebe, a Democrat. All of the state’s charter schools were approved by the State Board, but some Republicans believe the Board has been too slow to approve new charter schools. Charter schools are public schools granted increased regulatory freedom to try innovative techniques.
Jay Barth, a member of the State Board of Education, said it’s hard to fit board members into particular camps. Vicki Saviers has been involved with the reformist Arkansans for Educational Reform while new board member Dianne Zook tends to be supportive of reform efforts, he said. Barth said he has supported more charter school applications than he has opposed. Other states have more distinct factions, he said.
During this year’s regular session, state Rep. Mark Biviano, R-Searcy, filed a bill that would have removed the Board’s charter school authorizing authority and created a commission able to take over low-performing schools and turn them into charter schools.
Traditional school advocates were opposed. It was a catalyst for their rally Jan. 30. State Board of Education chair Brenda Gullett felt it was an attack on the State Board itself.
“A lot of people’s perspective is, we just need to do away with the way things are now and replace it with people that see it our way,” she said. “And I think that’s what a lot of that pushback was from during the session, was that, well, if we just take charters and charter approval out of the hands of the State Board, then we’re going to get all the charters that we want.”
The bill never gained traction. However, Biviano’s Act 509 defined the Arkansas Department of Education (ADE) rather than the State Board as the authorizer of charter schools, with the Board empowered to review all decisions.
According to Gullett, this was a good compromise. Charter school applications in the past could take up to two days of meetings, requiring State Board members to dive into unfamiliar minutiae of policy, such as leasing arrangements. She does not expect the Board to review all the applications.
“I have a great deal of confidence in the review committee because no one that I know of is categorically against charters,” she said. “We are categorically against ineffective schools that don’t serve all children.”
Biviano believes the Department of Education will be more open to charter schools than the State Board has been. Even though his original bill failed to pass, he believes it sent a message to the state’s education community about the importance an increasingly Republican Legislature places on charters. He said legislators are watching to see whether the new arrangement results in more and better charter schools.
The State Board was the subject of another bill by Rep. Jim Dotson, R-Bentonville, that would have changed the appointment process so that the governor, Senate president pro tempore, and House speaker each appointed three of its members. When that failed, Dotson amended the bill so that board members would be elected by the voters. It failed as well.
Dotson said he didn’t know any of the State Board members at the time he wrote the bill. He said it was meant to spread the appointment process across several viewpoints. He didn’t know if he would try to pass a similar bill in 2015.
Barth said the relationship between the State Board and the Legislature is not a bad one and that the two can work together.
“I do think that Arkansas has this history of ultimately pragmatism on a lot of policy issues, and even those who are maybe ideologically in slightly different places are ultimately problem solvers,” he said. “And I think that pragmatism has a lot of times trumped some of the boxes that some folks would like to put us in.”
Asked at the recent special session if some state legislators wish the State Board moved farther and faster on choice, charter school, and other issues, Biviano said, “Absolutely.” In an earlier interview, he pointed out that the differences between the State Board and legislators can be bridged, but if they can’t, legislators will press for reforms.
“I think fundamentally everybody is after the same goal and objective,” he said. “Maybe the methodology to get there may be a little bit different. So I don’t think it’s a wide, wide gap. You know, there’s a traditional entrenched mindset, and we hopefully need to point out and point to success in other states and in other educational objectives and methodologies that we get people to start to embrace. And I’m optimistic that we’re going to start to see that happen (whether through) cooperation or through a legislative mandate.”
This past regular session did not result in wholesale changes to education policy except in a new school choice law that grants students the right to transfer to other districts without changing their residency. Even that was a compromise bill.
But Biviano believes the momentum for reform will continue to gain speed, particularly if Republicans gain power in Little Rock. He believes this past session was a time of transition and that legislators will be emboldened to undertake greater reforms, such as a renewed push to provide tax credits for private school attendance and vouchers for students with special needs.
Public education once dominated state politics as the Lake View case wound its way through the courts, but education policies largely have been on autopilot for several years. Legislators routinely have approved small annual spending increases to keep the state out of court while focusing on other areas.
But this past special session brought legislators together to pass a school employee health insurance fix. Biviano said that’s evidence that the next session could see a focus on schools.
“I would project that while health care was probably the major topic in this past session, that the next session will probably be really focused around education,” he said.
Editor’s note: The writer of this article publishes a magazine, Report Card, in association with ASBA.