State School Board’s Role Unclear, But Important

by Steve Brawner ([email protected]) 99 views 

Editor’s note: This is the first of a two-part series about the State Board of Education.

As the chairperson of the State Board of Education, Brenda Gullett is leading an entity whose role is important but somewhat undefined.

The Arkansas state code lists 11 powers and duties, some specific and some very broad, including “have general supervision of the public schools of the state” and “recommend courses of study for the public schools and teacher training institutions.”

But what does that mean? Even Gullett, a former state senator from Pine Bluff who is in her seventh and last year on the board, said in late August that it can be confusing.

“The board has talked about from time to time whether or not we should get an independent attorney to look at what the law says about what our powers actually are because a lot of what we do is traditional – you know it’s done from one commissioner to the next to the next to the next – and nobody’s really been on there with the appetite to really do anything that much differently,” she said.

The State Board of Education includes nine members, all appointed by Gov. Mike Beebe: Gullett; Little Rock attorney and former state representative Sam Ledbetter; Newport banker Joe Black; Alice Mahony, co-founder of the El Dorado Education Foundation; Toyce Newton of Crossett, chief executive officer of Phoenix Youth and Family Services; Mireya Reith, executive director of Springdale’s Arkansas United Community Coalition, an immigrants’ rights organization; Vicki Saviers, the former executive director of the Public Education Foundation of Little Rock; Hendrix College professor Dr. Jay Barth; and Diane Zook of Melbourne, a former teacher and school administrator. Two represent each congressional district, with the ninth appointed at large.

State Board meetings sometimes last two days. For that, Gullett said with a laugh, members receive an $85 a month stipend and reimbursement for mileage.  “Really, I’ve never heard anyone complain,” she said.

Despite its somewhat vaguely defined role, the State Board’s impact on education is significant. In July 2010, it voted to adopt the Common Core State Standards, a set of educational benchmarks that describe the skills students should have in English language arts and math. They have been adopted in 45 states and the District of Columbia. Arkansas implemented the Common Core in grades K-8 during the past two years and is implementing it for the first time in high school this year.

Gullett said her first Education Commissioner, Dr. Ken James, was a somewhat dominant personality, and the board tended to take a subdued, business-as-usual approach. Recent boards have been more engaged under the current commissioner, Dr. Tom Kimbrell, who she described as more “inclusive.” She said another explanation might be that current board members are more assertive than those in years past.

Gullett is a board member with the National Association of State Boards of Education, which Barth says gives her a national perspective on education issues.

He said that Gullett’s personality has helped create a board that is “collegial” despite its members’ different perspectives and viewpoints. “If people are laughing together, they’re more likely to be working together, and I think that she’s incredible gifted,” he said. “Her personality really creates a glue.”

During this past session, a bill was introduced that would change how the State Board is appointed, while another passed that changed the process for approving charter schools in Arkansas. Those bills reflected significant differences between State Board members and legislators, particularly about charter schools. That disconnect could set up some interesting dynamics in the years to come, but Gullett is hopeful the two can work together.

“I think that we can build some really strong coalitions with legislators,” she said, “who when the session comes, will want to be partners in education, and not just down there trying to come up with their own remedy because they don’t know the whole picture. … (The State Board) cannot become a political football. That would just be the worst-case scenario.”

Tomorrow: Two visions for Arkansas public schools, and how those visions involve the State Board.