State of the State 2023: School choice, other changes to follow pandemic’s disruptions

by Steve Brawner ([email protected]) 2,137 views 

Arkansas’ K-12 public schools have returned to mostly normal operations after the pandemic, and now they face more permanent changes with a new governor planning to give parents more control over their children’s education.

Gov. Sarah Sanders hasn’t been specific about her plans for more “parental empowerment,” a term she prefers over “school choice,” where families have access to state funds for non-public education options like private schools. But it’s clear from her comments and from her early appointments that she intends to move the state in that direction. She nominated Jacob Oliva from Florida as her secretary of education, and Gretchen Conger from Arizona as her chief of staff. Both states have embraced school choice reforms in recent years.

In a recent interview with Talk Business, Sanders said she is working with legislators to craft specific policies. Asked if she was opposed to the money following the students, she replied, “I’m not opposed to parents having the ability to spend their taxpayer dollars on the best education possible for their kids.”

Sanders recently told the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette that she didn’t necessarily want the state to provide the same amount of money to non-public school students as it spends for those in public school. The state spent $5.477 billion on public schools in 2021-22, with total per pupil expenditures of $11,620. She said any proposal could be phased in.

Laurie Lee is chair of The Reform Alliance, an advocacy organization for education reform including school choice, and is managing partner of the Trace Strategies consulting firm that lobbies for education reform. She expects Sanders to enact major reforms that could include vouchers and education savings accounts where families would have access to state funds for expenses such as tuition, tutors and therapies approved by lawmakers. Lee said families could decide the best available options for their children using money allotted for each individual child.

“We have school choice for the rich and the connected, right? … This will level the playing field for all families, give every single family in Arkansas the ability to have equal access to all that Arkansas has to offer,” she said.

Opponents will argue that voucher programs will take money out of the public schools that at last count served 473,861 students, and provide them to less accountable non-public options. Many communities don’t have an alternative to public schools.

Mike Hernandez, executive director of the Arkansas Association of Educational Administrators, whose members include superintendents and principals, said if there is an increase in school choice, his group would hope for more accountability when the money follows the child, and some relaxation of regulations governing public schools. He expects more school choice wherever the debate leads.

“I feel like there’ll be something – at the very least some expansion of programs,” he said.

The political and policy changes come as 35.93% of Arkansas third graders were reading at grade level on the ACT Aspire exam for 2021-22. Research has shown that third grade reading proficiency is a strong predictor of a student’s later academic success.

In separate interviews with Talk Business & Politics, Sanders and Senate President Pro Tempore Bart Hester, R-Cave Springs, emphasized the need to improve those achievement levels. Scores have been disappointing at other grade levels. Tenth-graders’ scores were 37.5% in English language arts and 26% in math. Sanders said expanding access to pre-K opportunities and providing reading coaches to struggling parts of the state were among the ways she would address the problem.

Among the challenges facing Arkansas’ schools is a shortage of teachers. Fewer college students are earning teaching degrees than in the past, leading school districts to hire more nontraditional teachers. The percentage of teachers who are licensed has fallen from 93.1% in 2019-20 to 89.7% in 2021-22.

The House and Senate Education Committees produced separate adequacy reports last year calling for increasing minimum starting salaries by $4,000 from the current $36,000. Sanders told Talk Business & Politics she supports increased salaries but declined to provide a dollar figure.

The major recommendations related to school choice, literacy and teacher pay will be combined in one education bill. Sen. Clarke Tucker, D-Little Rock, told the Democrat-Gazette that could be a problem for legislators like him who support a teacher pay raise but might not support the final school choice option.

Sanders began her term by issuing eight executive orders, two of which directly related to education. One prohibited “indoctrination and critical race theory in schools.” Critical race theory is an academic model asserting that racial bias is embedded in the United States’ legal systems and institutions. The order says it’s discriminatory and that students should not be indoctrinated with it.

The other order would start putting into place the major education reforms she has been promising, or at least hinting at. Among other provisions, it would require the secretaries of education and human services to prioritize funding for quality early-childhood education for at-risk children. It would require students to be taught and teachers to be trained according to the science of reading method. She ordered the Department of Education to make it easer to start and expand charter schools. She also ordered an analysis of the state’s workforce training programs and ordered the department to review how schools are implementing the state’s school safety laws.

The changes come during a school year when classrooms are operating similar to where they were before the COVID-19 pandemic. Hernandez said the pandemic provided valuable lessons about parental engagement, communication and online learning.

“It’s not probably exactly the way it used to be normal, but it’s maybe a better normal,” he said.

Stacy Smith and Ivy Pfeffer, deputy commissioners with the Arkansas Division of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE), said the pandemic had a major impact on schools and on student achievement. Schools were closed during the latter part of the spring 2020 semester, and then many students’ educations were disrupted by the move to digital learning and by quarantining the next school year. Enrollment and attendance in pre-K, kindergarten and first grade dropped. The pandemic also paused a lot of training in the state’s reading initiatives.

Prior to COVID, DESE had a long-range goal in its state accountability plan to reach 80% ready or exceeding, with long-term trajectories for every school, but the gap year slowed down the process and forced a reset.

“Sometimes we underestimate the magnitude of that interruption, so getting our feet back under us, that really was what last school year was really getting about,” Pfeffer said.

The state has been allocated $1.8 billion in federal funds in response to the pandemic. So far, districts have spent 66% of their funding and have about $600 million left. Early in the pandemic, schools were using the money on personal protective equipment and digital content. Now the bulk is being spent to combat learning loss.

Pfeffer said she has been encouraged by the rebounding enrollment in career education centers like the Saline County Career Technical Campus and the Peak Innovation Center in Fort Smith. When Gov. Asa Hutchinson came into office, 54 school districts did not have access to these career centers, where high school students can gain workforce skills and certifications. He recently participated in an event celebrating access for the last remaining district, Piggott.

School districts also are working to ensure their districts are safe with help from $50 million appropriated by lawmakers in a special session last year. Funds will be available starting in January.

Smith said DESE will prioritize physical security like locking classroom and exterior doors. The priorities are based on recommendations from the Arkansas School Safety Commission, appointed by former Gov. Asa Hutchinson in 2018 after the school shooting in Parkland, Florida, and then reactivated by him last year after the shooting in Uvalde, Texas. DESE has developed its first-ever safe schools unit that will monitor and assist school districts.

Hernandez said some schools are self contained in one campus, while others require walking in and out of buildings. Campuses will be retrofitted, while new schools will be designed consistent with the School Safety Commission’s recommendations.

“I don’t think they go around worrying that they could be the next, but I think there is concern of trying to make sure that their schools are safe as possible,” he said. “School districts are kind of like fingerprints. Every one of them’s different.”

Editor’s note: The State of the State series provides reports twice a year on Arkansas’ key economic sectors. The series publishes stories to begin a year and stories in July/August to provide a broad mid-year update on the state’s economy. Link here for the State of the State page and previous stories.