University of Arkansas Office for Education Policy

October Joint House and Senate Ed. Committee Meeting Recap

In The View from the OEP on October 15, 2014 at 12:14 pm

The education committees of the Arkansas House and Senate met jointly on Monday, October 13th and Tuesday, October 14th to hear interim study reports on grade-level reading, leadership development, and school choice and to discuss educational adequacy.

Grade-Level Reading

logoThe transition from “learning to read” to “reading to learn” that takes place between third and fourth grades was the basis of an interim study to identify strategies to help all Arkansas students achieve grade-level reading by 2020. Working group chair Angela Duran, Director of the Arkansas Campaign for Grade Level Reading, explained that entering fourth graders who read at grade level have greater success rates in high school and college. Among the working group recommendations are increased funding for the Arkansas Better Chance (ABC) pre-kindergarten program; expanding ABC and Head Start programs; evaluating the impact of school improvement consulting expenditures; improving data quality in absentee reporting; and ensuring that NSLA funds designated for summer and after-school program are spent accordingly.

Leadership Development in Education

In their annual report to the education committees, the Leadership Coordinating Council highlighted the superintendent mentoring program and the evaluation systems for principals and superintendents. All first-year Arkansas superintendents are required to complete 18 hours of professional development and 12 hours of interaction with a trained mentor. The recent increase in the number of program participants was attributed to a surge in retirements among “baby boomer” superintendents.

LEADS_FINAL_1All districts have implemented the Leader Excellence and Development System (LEADS) for principal evaluation, and the system has expanded to include other school administrators and district leaders. Later this year, a newly-developed system for superintendent evaluation will be piloted in ten schools and will include training for school board members.

Director David Cook of the Arkansas Leadership Academy (ALA) highlighted the new Student Voice initiative, which is set to expand across the state. Student Voice seeks to gather student input and “give students a sense of empowerment and ownership in their academic outcomes with the goal of improving the learning culture and closing the achievement gaps.” Arkansas Leadership Academy School Support Leader Belinda Akin described another new approach, a three-year pilot project in Pulaski County that focuses on building leadership capacity throughout a school district rather than in an individual school, which is the academy’s usual method.

School Choice

Dr. Patrick Wolf, Professor and 21st Century Chair in School Choice at the University of Arkansas-Fayetteville, presented an overview of school choice research as part of an interim study report required by House Bill 1897. Responding to four main questions asked in the interim study, Wolf summarized the existing rigorous research on the topic, finding: 1) school choice has either positive effects or no effect, but not negative effects, on student performance and attainment; 2) public school performance improves in the presence of school choice; 3) parent satisfaction increases with school choice; and 4) choice creates cost savings. Rep. Randy Alexander reported that the School Choice Committee recommends maintaining the 3% transfer cap for schools not in academic or facility distress, requiring parents to use existing bus pick-up points for their choice school, and adding private schools to enhance choice options and better meet the demand for transfers.

Educational Adequacy

Prior to each regular legislative session, the House and Senate committees on education are required to study educational adequacy and formally report their recommendations to the Governor and House and Senate leaders. Because education is the first priority in state funding, the adequacy report’s funding recommendations are key to the budget development process for the coming biennium. As the committees met on Wednesday to finalize their report, professional development, NSLA, and teacher salaries were among the most discussed funding items. A common theme of the conversation was the need to balance district spending flexibility and legislative funding intent.

Professional development (PD) funds were cut in the 2014-15 school year as one measure to cover school employee health insurance, and committee members disagreed about whether to restore this line item or leave it at the reduced level. Some legislators pointed to conversations with teachers who said the PD they receive is not helpful. Others referred to research findings linking well-trained teachers to student achievement and noted that districts are responsible for ensuring high quality PD. (OEP Research Sidenote: While many in the field believe that good professional development is important for teacher continued growth, there is little if any rigorous evidence pointing out which kinds of professional development are effective … check this federal IES report for documentation of the lack of evidence on this opic.) In a roll call vote, the committee decided to recommend funding professional development at the lower level and reducing the required hours accordingly.

Committee members also discussed whether to recommend increasing NSLA funding, with several arguing that additional funding helps the poorest schools. Others voiced concern about problems with the NSLA funding structure. The committee voted to recommend leaving NSLA funding at current levels, with a proviso for further study.  (OEP Research Sidenote: Readers of this blog may recall that the OEP has weighed in on this question in the past, arguing essentially that a “smoother curve” funding distribution, which would allow for greater concentration of resources in the poorest school districts, would be an improvement over the existing funding scheme … for example, see our 2013 policy brief on NSLA Poverty Funding).

The most vigorous discussion was devoted to the committees’ recommendation for teacher salaries, specifically whether to raise the statutory minimum salary, require a cost of living adjustment (COLA), or some combination of the two. Advocates for increasing the statutory minimum from $29,244 to $31,000 noted the difficulty in recruiting and retaining teachers in some areas, as well as the link between good teachers and student achievement. Proponents of the COLA approach said that schools with higher salaries are disadvantaged if more funding is directed to those districts paying the lowest salaries. The committee will take up the issue again on Monday, October 27 as the final item in the adequacy report due on November 1.


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