University of Arkansas Office for Education Policy

HB 1377: Freeing Up Traditional Schools?

In The View from the OEP on March 12, 2015 at 12:41 pm

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Who signed on to HB1377?

The House Education Committee discussed a surprisingly controversial bill last week. Why surprising? Well, House Bill 1377, sponsored by Representative Reginald Murdock (D) of Marianna, boasts a very long list of Democrat and Republican co-sponsors.  The list included: Rep. Charles Armstrong (D) Little Rock, Rep. Charles Blake (D) Little Rock, Rep. Mary Broadaway (D) Paragould, Rep. Charlotte Douglas (R) Alma, Rep. Ken Ferguson (D) Pine Bluff, Rep.  Michael John Gray (D) Augusta, Rep. Kim Hendren (R) Gravette, Rep. Greg Leding (D) Fayetteville, Rep. Fredrick Love (D) Little Rock, Rep. George McGill (D) Ft. Smith, Rep. Milton Nicks (D) Marion, Rep. Chris Richey (D) Helena, Rep. Dan Sullivan (R) Jonesboro, Rep. John Walker (D) Little Rock, Rep. David Whitaker (D) Fayetteville and Rep. Marshall Wright (D) Forrest City.

What does  HB1377 say?

As currently written, HB1377 would allow school districts the same waivers granted to open-enrollment charter schools that draw from their districts. Representative Murdock, several superintendents, and a school board president from eastern Arkansas testified that some of the same policies waived for charter schools have limited the ability of nearby traditional schools districts to successfully serve the students in their schools.

During the lengthy and often animated discussion on Wednesday, March 4, proponents and opponents agreed the depth of the public conversation was important and overdue. Indeed, some of the same lawmakers signed on as sponsors of the bill no longer seemed in favor of it!  In the end, the bill received a Do Pass recommendation in a close vote.

The key theme of Representative Murdock’s testimony was the need for flexibility for school leaders. Claiming that “one size does not fit all”, Murdock argued that, “There has to be an affirmation that flexibility and innovation and ingenuity has a place.”  Essentially, he and his fellow advocates of the bill argued that the same waivers that allow charter schools to, for example, hire award winning journalist John Brummett to teach a journalism class, should be afforded to nearby traditional schools.

What can OEP’s research say about  HB1377?

As we at the OEP observed this hubbub, we thought back to our recent state-commissioned evaluation of Arkansas’ public charter schools. One of the questions we examined was: What waivers do charter schools seek?  In our view, lawmakers making a decision on this bill — that would allow traditional public schools to seek the same waivers as public charter schools — might want to know the answer to this question.  Thus, we hope that our policy brief published today adds useful information to the discussion that will soon head to the House Floor and also to the Senate.

What did we find? Well, charter schools across the state sought the following five waivers:

Top 5 Waiver Areas for Open Enrollment Charters:

  1. Teacher licensure
  2. Teacher and employee fair dismissal act, contract requirements, and hiring mandates (such as library media specialist)
  3. Gifted and talented programming
  4. Teacher salary and schedule
  5. Principal qualifications and responsibilities

Top 5 Waiver Areas for All Types of Charters (Conversion and Open Enrollment):

  1. Teacher licensure
  2. School year and school day length
  3. Gifted and talented
  4. Class size and teaching load
  5. Duty limits

Our count of waiver requests indicates that nearly all (92%) of the state’s charters requested waivers related to teacher licensure — school leaders have voiced the need to consider hiring teachers who are qualified but not traditionally licensed. While school leaders seek this flexibility, and do take advantage of it to fill many teaching needs, it is also true that the majority of teachers working at charter schools are traditionally licensed.

Most open enrollment charter school leaders also wanted waivers related to flexibility with teacher and employee contracts, teacher salary structure, and principal qualifications.  Our newest OEP Policy Brief takes a more in-depth look at the types of flexibility these school leaders want and why they want this flexibility.

Where will this discussion lead?

This bill has certainly encouraged reactions among the key stakeholders in Arkansas.  The primary teacher group in the state, the Arkansas Education Association (AEA) has referred to HB1377 as a “particularly dangerous bill.”

On the other side of the argument, the editorial board at the Arkansas Democrat Gazette has come out in favor of the proposed legislation, making the following argument:

If, say, Michael Jordan wanted to coach the basketball team at your local public school, would you want him to? Sure, you’d want him to.  But in this state, he might not be considered qualified–what with no official certificate to teach in the public schools.

The Dem Gaz supports HB1377 in that it would free up all schools, public charter or traditional public, to hire someone like Mr. Jordan.

Strangely, at first glance, it seems that Max Brantley and the folks at the Arkansas Times are thinking along the same lines as the Dem Gaz! The March 3 entry in the Arkansas Times Blog, on HB1377, ended with the following question:  But what, really, is the rationale for unleashing charter schools and not everybody else?

Representative Murdock ended his testimony on March 3 with the following hopeful sentiment and plea: “I believe that on both sides of the aisle we have compassionate people. Can we work together?”

Who knows?  If the Dem Gaz and the Ark Times agree, perhaps anything can happen!!

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