Among the bill topics brought to today’s meeting of the Senate Committee on Education, the PARCC test and charter school use of unused school building earned the most discussion.
Teachers, counselors, parents, professors, and policymakers gave impassioned testimony to a standing-room-only crowd on HB1241 that would eliminate the PARCC test after this school year. PARCC opponents cited technical problems, student stress, “teaching to the test,” and delayed results among their complaints. PARCC advocates emphasized the importance of an assessment aligned with the current standards, the work of the state’s educator task force in assuring quality, and the difficulties associated with implementing any first-time assessment of this scale. After ninety minutes of discussion, a Do Pass motion failed to get a second, and the bill appeared dead. After hearing other bills and preparing to adjourn, committee members received an amendment to HB1241 to prohibit multi-year contracts for assessments and to ensure consideration of the governor’s council findings. The amendment was approved, and HB1241 passed as amended. Given the swiftness of the action, further refinement of HB1241 would not be surprising.
Unused School Buildings
Sen. Alan Clark presented SB847 to establish a reclamation process in the Academic Facilities Distress Program so that open enrollment public charter schools can access unused school buildings on the brink of decline. Several senators cited examples of boarded-up school buildings decaying from lack of use while nearby successful charter schools are meeting in churches or trailers. Representatives of Association of Educational Administrators (AAEA) and Arkansas School Boards Association (ASBA) spoke against the bill, citing too much authority given to the Director of the Division of Public School Academic Facilities and Transportation and the lack of mechanisms for local school board input and appeals. Clark and others pointed to the organizations’ knowledge and inaction in addressing the problem as the reason for the bill. The bill passed after a lengthy discussion.
The Senate Committee on Education meets again on Friday, March 20, at 9:00 a.m.
The House Committee on Education heard several K-12 related bills in its meeting on Tuesday, March 17.
Comprehensive Career Education
Sen. Diane English presented SB368 to bring together the state’s various workforce development and career education efforts into a streamlined, coordinated system. The bill proposes to overhaul the current board, establish a skills development fund to make competitive grants for high school training initiatives, and improve coordination among the assortment of state and federal funds and programs with workforce development aims. Legislators asked for assurance that the new board would represent the diversity of the state’s population and address areas with the highest rates of unemployment. The bill passed and moves to the House of Representatives.
Sen. English presented another career development bill, SB371, to allow school districts to use NSLA and certain other categorical funds to offer concurrent coursework in technical training for grades 8-12 in partnership with higher education. Such arrangements are allowed in current law for remedial education only. The bill passed without opposition.
Sen. Alan Clark presented SB366 to provide additional compensation to teachers who voluntarily teach more than the maximum number of students per day and/or teach during their conference period. The bill does not authorize exceeding the maximum class size. In opposing the bill, an Arkansas Education Association (AEA) spokesman said that teachers may be pressured to “volunteer” and that those in smaller schools with lower pay will be affected most. Arkansas Association of Educational Administrators (AAEA) supported the bill, contending that teachers and administrators should have the flexibility to apply the provisions of SB366 as needed in their specific situations. Ultimately, the bill failed in a roll call vote.
Sen. Clark also presented SB591 to allow certified teachers who may be retired and/or long-term substitutes to serve as proctors for statewide assessments. Clark explained that when he filed the bill, PARCC regulations barred anyone other than current staff to proctor assessments. The prohibition is no longer in effect, but Clark pursued the bill to avoid a similar conflict in the future. SB591 passed without opposition.
Time on the Bus
Rep. Reginald Murdock presented HB1640 that would require the Commission on Academic Facilities and Transportation to establish a maximum time for a one-way bus ride to/from school. HB1640 stemmed from the results of a transportation study commissioned by Murdock-sponsored legislation in 2013 and conducted by the Bureau of Legislative Research (BLR). Legislators expressed concern about the toll on students of long bus rides and the cost to schools if establishing a maximum time led to more routes. The bill passed with several opposed. [Interim studies and other education research publications are available on the BLR website.]
Rep. Charlotte Douglas presented HB1600 to address situations in which school districts must submit data multiple times to agencies that have different formatting requirements. The bill provides that districts must submit or publish data as required by law, but that agencies must make their own formatting changes. The bill passed without opposition.
Rep. Douglas also presented HB1685 to require teaching dating violence awareness in health classes for grades 7-12. Douglas stressed the importance of understanding dating violence as an aspect of student health and said the topic is already part of the curriculum but often skipped. The bill specifies teaching the material in October for fall courses and February for spring courses to align with national awareness campaigns. The bill passed without opposition.
The House Committee on Education meets again on Thursday morning, March 19. Several bills on school nurse staffing and facilities are on the agenda.