University of Arkansas Office for Education Policy

Archive for 2017|Yearly archive page

Outstanding Educational Performance Awards 2016: High Achieving Elementary Schools

In The View from the OEP on February 22, 2017 at 3:07 pm

best-2016Here at the OEP  we are excited to celebrate the achievement of the highest-performing schools across the state in our 2015-16 Outstanding Educational Performance Awards (also known as the OEP Awards)!  Each year, we celebrate two types of schools: “High-Achieving” and “Beating the Odds”.  High Achieving schools are those whose students demonstrated the highest performance on the ACT Aspire tests, and “Beating the Odds” are the highest performing schools serving low-income communities.

Today’s awards for High Achieving elementary schools are based on the performance of elementary students on the ACT Math, English Language Arts, and Science assessments.

How are OEP awards different?

There are many lists of “Best Schools”, so why is the OEP’s list special?  It’s simple- we use the most recent assessment data and a methodology that is easy to understand, accounts for students at all performance levels, and doesn’t include self-reported (unverified) data. We have addressed our concerns with the Niche rankings before, Schooldigger uses a modification the old-school % proficient measure, and Greatschools uses assessment data from 2014!

Unlike the state performance awards that were given out a few months ago, OEP awards are grouped by school level (Elementary, Middle, Jr. High and High) and by Region (Northwest, Northeast, Central, Southwest and Southeast).  In addition, we include Science as well as ELA and Math in calculating overall achievement, and report high achieving schools by individual subjects as well.

The OEP calculates a GPA for schools in each subject based on the number of students that performed at each level on the most recent state exams.  Because of changes in the state assessment system, GPAs for 2016 are not directly comparable to prior years. For ACT Aspire performance, students scoring ‘Exceeded Expectations’ are assigned 4 points, those ‘Ready to Learn’ are assigned 3 points, students who are ‘Close to Meeting Expectations’ get 2 , and students ‘In Need of Support’ receive 1 point.  If all students in a school scored at the highest level, Exceeded Expectations, the school would get a 4.0, while if all scored at the lowest level the school would be assigned a GPA of 1.0.

Highest Achievement: Elementary

The top elementary school overall is Vandergriff Elementary from Fayetteville School District, with 83% of students meeting or exceeding readiness benchmarks in all subjects combined.  Vandergriff was also the top performing school in the state in each subject area, with 89% meeting readiness expectations in math, 80% in ELA, and 81% in science.

The top elementary schools for overall achievement are:

1. Vandergriff Elementary (Fayetteville)
2. Forest Park Elementary (Little Rock)
3. Gillett Elementary (Dewitt)*
4. Don Roberts Elementary (Little Rock)
5. (tie) Park Magnet (Hot Springs)
5. (tie) Bellview Elementary (Rogers)
7. Baker Interdistrict Elementary (Pulaski County Special)
8. Bernice Young Elementary (Springdale)
9. Northwest Arkansas Classical Academy (responsive Ed. Soltions)
10. Salem Elementary (Salem)
11. Root Elementary (Fayetteville)
12. John P. Woods Elementary (Fort Smith)
13. Chenal Elementary (Pulaski County Special)
14. (tie) Central Park At Morningstar (Bentonville)
14. (tie) Armorel Elementary (Armorel)
16. Euper Lane Elementary (Fort Smith)
17.Valley View Intermediate (Valley View)
18. Mount Pleasant Elementary (Melbourne)
19. (tie) Hunt Elementary (Springdale)
19. (tie) R.E. Baker Elementary (Bentonville)

We were pleased to see a variety of districts on our list this year and to see schools with more diverse populations having such success. While the majority of these high achieving elementary schools enroll a relatively small percentage of students eligible for the Free/Reduced Lunch program (due to low household income), two of the top five schools serve Free/Reduced Lunch to over half of their students (Gillett is 60% FRL and Park Magnet is 55%).  We are also pleased to note that Hunt Elementary is ranked 19th in the state, and serves a population of students where 29% are identified as Limited English Proficient, compared to 4% LEP in the rest of the top 10 schools.

You can find the top elementary schools by subject and region in the full report.

——Stay tuned to learn about more OEP Award Winners!——

Next week we will share “High Achieving” Middle and Junior High schools, followed by High Schools.  On March 15th we will release the list of high performing school serving high poverty populations, those who are “Beating the Odds!”


Local Control and Teacher Salaries

In The View from the OEP on February 15, 2017 at 1:24 pm

appleThis week, we consider actions school districts can take to attract and retain teachers.  Last week we addressed how education is a local issue, and we know that many of the most important decisions impacting student education take place locally.  One of those local decisions is teacher compensation.

In response to our recent blog post about several bills in the legislature to incentivize teachers, and we received feedback from teachers who were frustrated that these incentives are not helpful to them. These veteran teachers are at the top of the salary scale, and given rising healthcare contributions, feel they are earning less each year. Arkansas is developing incentives to bring folks into the profession, but how can we keep them from leaving?

Although Arkansas has a lower percentage of teachers leaving the profession than most other states, many teachers exit each year. In a recent Bureau of Legislative Research survey,  26% of Arkansas teachers who responded indicated they are currently considering leaving the teaching profession.  New teachers leave at a high rate,  36% of new Arkansas teachers left the profession within five years.  Older teachers leave at high rates as well, with about 10% of teachers between 40 and 60 leaving the profession, and exit rates sharply increasing for teachers over 60.

Although teachers leave for a variety of reasons, it is often about the money.  District leaders who responded to the survey identified difficultly in offering competitive salaries was the greatest challenge when it comes to retaining teachers, and 54% of teachers indicated that higher salaries/better benefits would keep them in the profession.

Arkansas teachers are not underpaid compared to the national average and regional states. Arkansas teacher salaries are increasing and about average nationally and regionally when cost of living is figured in. Arkansas’ average classroom teacher salary for 2015-16 was $48,976 but there is variation between districts throughout the state.

Who decides how much to pay teachers?

Your local school boards.

So, why can’t districts offer competitive salaries? They can.

Districts in Arkansas receive the guaranteed funding at the same per-student amount  according to the state funding matrix. In 2015-16 allocated $4,290 per student in teacher salary and benefits. Since the average teacher salary is 2015-16 was $48,976, assuming a benefit rate of 26% would make the average teacher cost $61,709 in salary and benefits to the district. Given the matrix funding per student, if the district allocated the matrix funding as suggested, the average teacher’s salary and benefits would be covered by just over 14 students. Note that this is based just on the foundation funding, not any additional mils that may be collected locally.

But teacher salaries are determined locally, so districts can essentially set the salaries as whatever they want.

The state legislated a minimum teacher salary, but districts set their own compensation schedules.  Interesting data about the differences in classroom teacher salaries come from examining district-level payments as a per student basis. On average, districts are spending near the per-student matrix amount on classroom teacher salaries and benefits. Some spend more, but others spend less.

For example, the Jonesboro school district spent less than average, about $3,962 per student on teacher salaries and benefits (again, assuming the 26% benefit). By contrast, Deer/ Mt. Judea school district spent more, with an estimated $5,357 per student on teacher salaries and benefits.

Although the district is spending more, teachers in Deer/ Mt Judea make about $10,000 less than the teachers in Jonesboro. In Jonesboro the average teacher makes a salary of $48,000, and in Deer/ Mt. Judea the average teacher makes $38,000.

How can there be such a significant difference in salary, given that the schools are funded similarly and that Deer /Mt Judea is spending more per student? It isn’t really due to district enrollment, there are large and small districts on both sides of the teacher salary data.  It has to do with staffing. In Jonesboro, the student–teacher ratio is 1 teacher to 13 students, while in Deer/ Mt. Judea, there is 1 classroom teacher to 7 students.

While we love small class sizes, this seems very low. And it isn’t just these districts: the state average ratio of classroom teachers to students is 1 to 12. State limitations on how many students can be in a teacher’s class vary from 20 (for Kindergarten) to 30 (for 7th grade and up), but every district in the state is well below the average of 1 teacher to 25 students. If the state were staffed in the 1 to 25 ratio, the average classroom teacher salary, using only existing salary funding, could double to over $90,000.


But teacher salaries are determined locally, so districts can choose to set the salaries as whatever they want!

So far we have addressed only the average teacher salary, and teacher salaries are typically based on years of experience and level of education. Arkansas teachers typically receive an increase in salary each year and additional increases for further education credits.

Districts determine how large annual salary increases are and when they ‘top out’. Some districts stop increasing teacher pay after 20 years, while others continue to 30 years or beyond.  Some districts only provide additional compensation up to a Master’s degree, while others provide additional pay through Specialist or Doctorate degrees.

So, districts should be strategic with their resources, and we have some suggestions:

Make sure spending is aligned with district priorities.

  • If high-quality teachers is your goal- make sure your salary schedule reflects that through high pay.
  • If you care more about small class sizes, make sure to communicate that being responsible for fewer students is a benefit of working with you.
  • If you want to keep experienced teachers in the classrooms, be sure your salary schedule continues increased for veteran teachers.
  • If you want to attract the best new teachers, be sure your salary schedule has high beginning salaries.

Ensure your staffing is aligned with student needs.

  • Identify your teacher needs now and hire early.
  • Actively seek out excellent candidates.
  • Have prospective teachers teach as part of the interview process, and ask for student input.
  • If trying to fill a position where there may be limited applicants (like secondary math/science), consider attract the best through a signing bonus, additional planning time, or other benefits.
  • Don’t feel like you need to hire full-time. If you just need a chemistry teacher, find one and offer a position for that amount of time. Many people like the flexibility of a less than full time job, and trying to find the best chemistry teacher who is also a tennis coach might not be the best choice for students.

Resource allocation is under district control and your local school board decides how much to pay teachers and how many students should be in each class. These decisions are under local control, so get involved!

On a side note, salary decisions aren’t limited to teachers. Principals, district staff and Superintendent salaries are also variable throughout the state and decided by local boards.  In Jonesboro, the superintendent was paid $145, 000 in 2014-15, while the superintendent in Deer/Mt Judea received $118, 000. While these salaries may seem reasonable, consider that Jonesboro served 5,382 students and Deer/ Mt. Judea served 338 students. In per student costs, the Jonesboro superintendent was paid about $26  per student per year, while in Deer/Mt Judea the superintendent was paid more than 10 times that amount.  Examining district expenditures using a ‘cost per student’ method can help districts compare their expenditures to other districts.


Heavens to Betsy! What Betsy DeVos Means for Arkansas Students

In The View from the OEP on February 8, 2017 at 11:47 am

Yesterday, Betsy DeVos was confirmed as the U.S. Secretary of Education. She was a contentious appointment, as reflected by the historic 51 to 50 vote that confirmed her.

In our opinion, DeVos failed to effectively answer questions during her confirmation hearings, and we cringe at her apparent lack of understanding of basic education policy concepts. Honestly, though, it doesn’t matter if she thinks measuring proficiency is more important than measuring growth, or if charters and vouchers are the answer.

What DOES matter is what Arkansans think (and say) about these issues.

What does the DeVos confirmation mean for students in Arkansas?


Not much.

Education is mainly a State and local responsibility. The federal government provides only a small share of Arkansas’ education funding (approximately 10%). These funds are used to support the education of students in poverty and those with disabilities. Withholding these funds is the only leverage that the federal government has over State and local decisions about education, and although federal funds were withheld from some school districts that refused desegregation in the 1960s, withholding these funds isn’t a current reality.

In addition, the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) includes extensive limitations to the Education Secretary’s role.

Language in ESSA prohibits the Secretary from:

  • any influence in academic standards,
  • requiring additional assessment reporting requirements, data elements or information to be reported,
  • adding any new rules to statewide accountability requirements,
  • requiring states to add or delete any elements to the state plans,
  • prescribing specific goals or specific assessments or specific indicators,
  • prescribing the weight of any indicators or a specific methodology,
  • prescribing specific school improvement or support strategies, or
  • prescribing any parameter of a teacher or principal evaluation system.

Essentially, ESSA makes it clear that education is a State matter, and states get to make their own decisions.


Who DOES make these decisions for Arkansas students?


Academic Standards and Accountability:  The State Board of Education adopts the academic standards for Arkansas, and the Arkansas Department of Education is currently developing the state’s accountability plan.

Under ESSA there are a few things that states must measure: Proficiency rates, graduation rates, and English Language Learner progress in attaining proficiency in English. Other measures can be selected by states. How DO we feel about measuring student growth? Do we want to include a growth measure in our school accountability plan? What other indicator of school quality is important? We don’t have to ask Betsy- she’s not allowed to tell us (and likely couldn’t) – because WE get to choose what we think are important outcomes for our schools.

ADE has been on a listening tour to find out what folks around the state thought were important outcomes for schools. You can see the feedback here.

In addition, a group of stakeholder representatives meets monthly to discuss the development of the ESSA plan. Last month they learned about issues like determining the minimum number of students required in a particular student group for them to be included in accountability calculations (aka the Minimum N), and examined differences in 4, 5 and 6 year graduation rates. You can see the information presented here.  Both of these topics may sound boring, but they can have BIG IMPACTS when it comes to school accountability.

Unlike Secretary DeVos, you DO have a voice in Arkansas education. Stay informed about our ESSA plan by signing up here and share your thoughts about the future of Arkansas education by emailing

If you care about education, you should also pay attention to what is happening in the state legislature.  Many education issues are decided by the legislature, and there are several education-related bills currently on the agenda in the House and Senate Education Committees.

Voucher Programs:

Arkansas currently has a voucher program for special education students, and there is a bill currently in the House that would create a universal voucher opportunity for Arkansas. Any voucher system in Arkansas would have to be legislated through our state officials, or enacted through changes to the federal tax code.


Charter Schools:

Arkansas law established an initial cap on the number of open-enrollment charter schools allowed in the state at 24. The cap is automatically increased by five spots when the number of charter schools is within two of meeting the existing cap. The cap currently stands at 29, and there are 24 active open-enrollment charters in the state.

A dedicated and professional group of educators serve as the Charter Authorizing Panel. The Panel carefully considers each new application and renewal request before making recommendations to the State Board of Education. These recommendations for charter authorizations, renewals, or closures must be approved or denied by the State Board of Education.

Any expansion of charter schools in Arkansas would be in increments of 5 schools annually and would only be possible if increasing numbers of charter schools applied and were approved by the Charter Authorizing Panel and the State Board of Education.

If Betsy DeVos grabbed your attention, we recommend shifting your focus to Arkansas.  Education is local and your opinions can influence important decisions happening now.


Keeping the Promise for 10 years: El Dorado celebrates a decade of supporting student scholarships

In The View from the OEP on February 3, 2017 at 11:09 am

Imagine someone promised you a scholarship to any accredited public or private educational institution in the U.S. and the only requirement was to graduate from high school.

A program in El Dorado has been keeping that promise to students for ten years!  And over 2,000 students have furthered their education on the Promise.

promiseThe El Dorado Promise program is a $50 million scholarship program established and funded by the Murphy Oil Corporation in January 2007 and modeled after the Kalamazoo Promise. The program provides every graduate of El Dorado High School who has been enrolled in the El Dorado Public School district since at least ninth grade with up to $40,000 of tuition who has been enrolled in the El Dorado Public School district since at least ninth grade.   Students can use the scholarship to attend any accredited two-year or four-year, public or private educational institution in the U.S.

Last night, Gov. Hutchinson and Claiborne Deming from Murphy Oil Corp joined parents, students, teachers, and school officials to celebrate the Promise’s 10th birthday

Liz Murray, was the keynote speaker and her speech was amazing!.  She was homeless at age 15 and completed her degree at Harvard in 2009.

promise_speaker_002_t311Photo from El Dorado News

Outcomes from the Promise include higher college attendance rates among graduates, increased participation in Advanced Placement courses and increased enrollment in El Dorado Public Schools.  Promise scholars have attend 129 different colleges in 29 states, and many return to El Dorado high school to share their college experiences.  In fact, ten have brought the Promise home and returned to El Dorado to work in the district.

We are excited to see continuing stories about the El Dorado Promise!



New (and Old) Incentives to Attract Teachers

In The View from the OEP on February 1, 2017 at 1:41 pm

appleHere at OEP, we support scholarships and loan forgiveness incentives for teachers and the research does too. BUT, we do have some suggestions for the bills currently in the Senate that would help ensure that the programs support the students who need teachers the most.

Two bills have been introduced in the Senate that provide financial incentives to attract new teachers into high-needs areas:

SB26 would provide an additional $5,000 in scholarships annually for students in a teacher education program at 4-year approved institution of higher education who agree to teach for a minimum of 5 consecutive years in a high-needs subject area as determined by the Department of Education. The program is available to students during last two years of college who have GPA> 3.25.

SB27 would create a loan forgiveness program of up to $5,000 annually for students majoring in a degree program that will lead to the individual’s becoming eligible for licensure as a teacher in a high-needs subject who agree to teach for 5 consecutive years in a school or school district located in a geographic area identified by the Department of Education as a critical teacher shortage area beginning immediately upon obtaining licensure. Recipients must be residents of Arkansas, and sophomores, juniors or seniors in good standing.

Sounds great! We support incentives for teachers and the research does too. BUT, we do have some suggestions that would help ensure that the students who need teachers most are getting them.

Suggestion #1: Refine the identification of “High-Need Subject Areas”

According to the Arkansas Department of Education: the high-needs subject areas for 2016-17, also referred to as critical shortage areas are:

  • Agriculture Science & Technology
  • Art
  • Computer Science
  • Family and Consumer Science
  • French
  • Library Media
  • Mathematics
  • Physical Science (Chemistry, Physics)
  • Spanish
  • Special Education

We were surprised to see some of these subject areas were in short supply. We think Art teachers are awesome, and are often the highlight of a student’s day, but we are somewhat taken aback that Art teachers are in critical shortage.

Some areas, like special education, mathematics and science are not a surprise. Each has been identified as a critical shortage area every year since 1990. Special education is a shortage K-12, while math and science shortages are at the middle and high school levels.

Library/media specialists are also consistently identified as a critical shortage area, however, and were surprised about that. Turns out, nearly 20% of the current library/media teachers are identified as ‘veteran teachers’, indicating they may retire soon. The potential loss of an ageing group of librarians seems to be driving the identification of a shortage in the area of library/media.

Our concern is that under the current definition, Art and Special Education are considered equally ‘high needs’ subject areas. Special education has been a critical shortage area K-12 for nearly 30 years and has the highest percentage of teachers currently teaching on waivers of any ‘high needs’ subject area. Compare this to Art, which has been sporadically identified (four times since 1990). We suggest that ‘high need’ should be determined as having been identified in at least 2 of the past 3 years. Exceptions could be made for areas like Computer Science, that are a new and statewide need.

Suggestion #2: Add in geographic region or school characteristics “High-Need Subject Areas”

In addition to adding a multi-year criteria for ‘high needs’ identification, we suggest that the supply and demand identification model utilized by the ADE could better serve Arkansas students by identifying specific geographic areas or particular types of schools that are experiencing shortages.

For example, while we understand that special education is a high-needs area throughout the state, we would be surprised to find that Art teachers are in short supply in Northwest Arkansas. If, for example, small, rural districts are having difficulty attracting Art teachers, then perhaps these should be included in the ‘high need’ definition.

Similarly, attaching a particular type of school (high-poverty, urban and/or rural) to the definition of ‘high-need’ could help ensure that teachers stay in the schools where they are needed the most. Without specifying the particular type of school, one could imagine that Art teachers, while staying in the high need subject area, would move to more ‘desirable’ teaching placements in more suburban schools with lower poverty rates.

Suggestion #3: Make sure teachers know about the incentives already available!

  1. The TEACH Grant Program provides grants of up to $4,000 a year to students who are completing or plan to complete course work needed to begin a career in teaching. Teachers must agree to serve in a high-need field, at an elementary school, secondary school, or educational service agency that serves students from low-income families for at least four complete academic years within eight years after completing (or ceasing enrollment in) the course of study for which you received the grant.
  2. State Personnel Development Grants (SPDG): Up to $3,500 in tuition reimbursement to 20 eligible teachers who pursue a licensure endorsement in special education.  The State Teacher Education Program (STEP) is administered by the Higher Education Department. It helps teachers pay federal student loans of up to $3,000 a year for licensed teachers who work in geographic areas designated as having a critical shortage of teachers, or who teach academic courses designated as having a critical shortage of teachers.
  3. The Teacher Opportunity Program (TOP) provides financial help for teachers who return to college to get licensed in additional subject areas. The school district that employs the teacher is authorized to provide the teacher administrative leave and to help offset the tuition costs. SD1303 would modify the criteria for receiving a Teacher Opportunity Program (TOP) grant from teachers seeking additional licensure in any subject to those seeking additional education in Science, Technology, Engineering or Mathematics, Computer Science, Literacy or Reading, PreK Education or Special Education.
  4. The Arkansas Geographical Critical Needs Minority Teacher Scholarship Program awards scholarships up to $1,500 per academic year for Black American, Hispanic American, Asian American or Native American enrolled in or accepted for enrollment at a baccalaureate degree-granting institution of higher education or at an accredited state-supported community college.
  5. Up to $1,000 in moving expenses for particular regions (§ 6-17-308).
  6. High-Priority District Incentive Bonus: Up to $5,000 at the completion of the first year to teach in district with at least 80% of students eligible for FRL and fewer than 1000 students. Up to $4,000 at the completion of second and third years and $3,000 at the completion of each subsequent year (§ 6-17-811).
  7. National Board Teacher Certification Bonus: Currently $5,000 per year for 10 years and reimbursement of certification costs.  The NBCT program is the most expensive per teacher and impacts the most students and teachers.


Chart from Teacher Recruitment and Retention Report:

Suggestion #4: Check to see if the incentives are working

Are these dollars making a difference for Arkansas students?  Are teachers being attracted to the profession?  Are they staying?  We would love to see the answers to these questions.  Because if not, it seems like higher salaries are the biggest issue in recruiting and retaining teachers, and maybe rerouting the money into higher salaries for those willing to teach in critical need areas instead of loan forgiveness or bonuses would be more effective?

HB1208 and HB1222: More channels for Arkansas students

In AR Legislature, The View from the OEP on January 25, 2017 at 11:52 am


Two bills introduced in the Arkansas state legislature have gotten us thinking about TV, cable, and Netflix.

The first bill, (HB1208), would allow districts to adopt a policy allowing private school or homeschool students to enroll in academic courses at a the public school, and provides funding to the district for each student that does so.

The second bill, The Arkansas Parental Empowerment for Education Choice Act of 2017 (HB1222), would create Education Savings Accounts that parents could use to support non-public schooling options such a private school tuition or curriculum materials for homeschoolers. 

More details about the bills are provided below, but essentially, one bill provides support for public schools that offer part-time academic enrollment to students who are not currently attending public school, and the other provides financial support parents that want a non-public option. The bills move our students closer to learning what they need, when they need, where they need.

And that’s why we were thinking about TV….

When we were growing up there were a few channels on the TV and they were the same for everyone.  Along came the VHS (and the doomed Betamax) and you could rent movies to watch at home and even set up your VCR to record something off of the TV. Then came cable, and (for a price) you could get cool shows on Showtime and HBO.  Soon you could record your shows on devices like TiVo, and pause and fast forward through commercials (which we LOVE)!  Some people got frustrated with the ‘cable packages’ (where you have to pay for lots of channels you will never watch in order to get the one or two you want) and have left cable for on-demand streaming services such as Netflix or Hulu.  The students in our classrooms now likely ONLY stream their content.  These services allow subscribers to watch what they want, when they want, where they want.

There are parallels to learning: In the past there were mainly public schools and private schools.  Additional options have increased in Arkansas and across the country- including virtual, charter, and homeschool options. Now we are getting options to mix and match- public schools are getting the opportunity to allow these students to enroll for a specific class or two and parents who are choosing the non-public options are getting an opportunity to get some financial support for their student’s education.

We look forward to seeing how these bills progress through the session.  We think students benefit from both these bills and don’t see a significant downside.  Famillies and students expect to be able to make choices that best match thier needs. Educational options should provide students opportunities to do the same.

HB1208 would allow districts to adopt a policy allowing private school or homeschool students to enroll in academic courses at a the public school, and provides funding to the district for each student that does so.

What it is: Students who are not attending public school may, if the local public school district agrees, enroll in an academic class at the local public school. Homeschool students are already allowed to participate in interscholastic activities such as sports, fine arts, or clubs.

Districts are not required to allow homeschool or private school students to enroll.  If the district did allow enrollment, the state would pay the district an amount equal to 1/6th of foundation funding for each course in which a homeschool or private school student enrolls. Given that foundation funding for 2016-17 is $6,646, that works out to about $1,100 per class/student annually. Districts can limit the enrollment to certain grade levels or courses, to a certain number of students, and/or set specific admissions criteria.  We like the idea of homeschool students having access to Project Lead the Way courses, AP classes, or any class taught by an outstanding public school teacher.

Who is eligible:   Any district may choose to adopt such policies and any homeschool or private school student may enroll if the local district allows.  There is no enrollment cap included in the legisaltion. In 2015-16, 19,229 students were homeschooled, a population equivalent to about 4% of the public school population.  Homeschool rates (as a percentage of the public school population) ranges from 0% to over 15%.

The Arkansas Parental Empowerment for Education Choice Act of 2017 (HB1222)

What it is: In lieu of attending a public school, Education Savings Accounts (ESAs) allow families to allocate funding to non-public schooling options of their choice. The amount equivalent to the foundation funding amount ($6,646 for 2016-17) will be placed in an ESA and the funds can be used to:

  • pay tuition at a private school,
  • purchase curriculum or instructional materials for homeschool studies, 
  • purchase tutoring services, 
  • pay fees for AP examinations, college placement examinations, Industry certification examinations,  
  • pay tuition for after-school or summer programs focused on academic instruction,
  • make contributions to a college savings account,
  • pay tuition or fees at an institution of higher education,
  • pay for specialized services for eligible students (such as occupational therapy, physical therapy, speech-language pathology, audiology), and/ or
  • pay transportation costs for travel to educational services.

Who is eligible:  The proposed program would allow any child eligible to enroll in a K-12 public school in the state to qualify for the ESA.   Five states that currently have ESA programs:  Arizona, Florida, Mississippi, Nevada, and Tennessee, have limitations about the types of students who are eligible. Students must be identified with special needs to be eligible in Florida, Mississippi, and Tennessee.  Students in Arizona and Nevada must have previously attended a public school to be eligible.  Arkansas is the first state to propose a fully-universal ESA.

Given maximum funding, approximately 2,000 students could receive an ESA for the 2017-18 school year. This is 0.4% of current public school enrollment.  In the first year, if the number of students applying for an ESA exceeds the funding available, accounts will be offered through a weighted lottery that ensures students receiving Free/Reduced Lunch (FRL) are proportionally represented. Statewide, 61% of public school students currently receive FRL so the lottery would be weighted to ensure that 61% of the accounts were allocated to FRL students. If fewer than 61% of applications are from FRL-eligible students, 100% of the FRL students will be selected for an account.

In subsequent years, if the number of students applying for an ESA exceeds the funding available, current users and their siblings are prioritized for ESAs.

Initial analysis of fiscal impacts of the bill indicate it will likely be cost neutral for the state.

Vouchers in Arkansas: Examining the Succeed Scholarship Program

In AR Legislature, The View from the OEP on January 11, 2017 at 1:34 pm


President-elect Donald Trump, an open supporter of school choice, has nominated Betsy Devos for Secretary of Education. Devos was most recently the Chairwoman of the board of directors for the American Federation for Children, a lobbying, political action committee (PAC), and non-profit organization that promotes school choice across the country.  This political atmosphere requires that we think critically about how school choice policies apply to the state of Arkansas.

School Choice in Arkansas

Arkansas already provides for several types of school choice. The most well-known is charter schools, which are public schools that are independently operated but receive federal and state funding and held to all accountability requirements. Currently, Arkansas has 24 open-enrollment charter schools operating 43 campuses.  Another type of school choice that may be less familiar is vouchers. Arkansas has a new program allowing such vouchers for students with disabilities, and today’s policy brief examines the program and what it might mean for Arkansas.

The Succeed Scholarship

The 2016-17 school year is the first year that Arkansas’ students with disabilities could use state education dollars as tuition at authorized private schools. The Succeed Scholarship Program, passed by House Bill 1552, permits public school students with disabilities to transfer to an approved private school of their parent’s choosing with the support of the student’s full foundation funding to cover school tuition and fees. Students with an Individualized Education Plan (IEP) can apply to participating private schools, and, if accepted, receive a voucher worth the state’s foundation funding amount (currently $6,646) or school tuition, whichever is less. Approved private schools are held to academic, fiscal, non-discrimination, and safety standards.

The underlying belief behind private school choice is that parents have their own goals for the education of their students and also have a better understanding of what their student needs than do school officials. In the case of special education students, this is critical because traditional public schools offer similar special education services, and parents may not feel that these services will meet the needs of their student.  Moreover, students who are geographically tied to attend a poor performing traditional school should be provided the means to obtain a high quality education regardless of their family wealth.  These types of choices have always been afforded to wealthy Americans, and private school choice programs afford all parents the same options.

Private school choice programs (i.e. vouchers, tax-credit scholarships, education savings accounts, etc.) for students with disabilities are becoming increasingly popular, particularly in the southern United States. While most other private school choice programs target students from low-income households, programs like the Succeed Scholarship offer a private school voucher to students based on enrollment in special education.  Special education has had a long history of utilizing private schools to provide appropriate services for students with disabilities.  Through the IEP process, districts can place students in private schools if they are unable to properly support their academic progress.  A voucher, however, takes the district decision-making out of the equation, and it allows parents to place their students in private schools on their own.

Impacts for Arkansas

There are potential cost savings from the Succeed Scholarship Program for the state and district. Students with disabilities receive funding from state, local and federal sources, but the program  only allots state foundation funding for the voucher, leaving more federal and local funding available to all other students who remain in the public school system. Additionally, the current bill funds the Succeed Scholarship outside of the Public School Fund, leaving all state funding that would have gone to these students available.

To some extent, we may see all of these areas as clear reasons why a program like the Succeed Scholarship should exist. An important concern, however, is that families must relinquish their rights under the Individuals with Disabilities in Education Act (IDEA) and their Individualized Education Plan (IEP) while enrolled in the Succeed Scholarship program. While parents can return at any time to the public schools or even transfer to another private school participating in the program, potential negative effects exist from a school that neglecting the special needs of a student with a disability. Another concern is that the voucher amount may not cover the entire cost of tuition at a school that will meet the student’s needs, and poor families would not be able to supplement (“top up”) the voucher. This is particularly true for students with the most severe disabilities, who cost substantially more to educate. Private schools that participate cannot discriminate in their admissions process, but they can use their normal entrance requirements, including testing, interviews, and review of records. Students with academic, social/emotional, and behavioral disabilities, may be at a real disadvantage and be de facto discriminated against, limiting their true school choices.

Special education private school choice programs are often seen as a “foot in the door” for school choice laws. Once some success has been shown to the public, more laws can be passed to expand these programs. The political climate is ripe for such potential expansion, whether these programs are targeted to students from low-income households or available to all students. Eyes are on the current legislative session to see if the issue of private school choice arises once again in Arkansas. It is essential that citizens and legislators alike consider the potential costs and benefits, not just for students today but for generations to come.

Stop Scapegoating: Educating kids should be the focus

In The View from the OEP on January 4, 2017 at 12:35 pm

In case you missed it- we wanted to share our Op-Ed from the paper this weekend about charter school enrollment in Little Rock.


img_3836The approved expansion of two Little Rock-area charter schools led many to express fears that charter schools skim off the easiest-to-educate students and leave “those other kids” for traditional schools. Specifically, concerns were raised that charters would decrease the white population of Little Rock School District and increase the district’s percentage of poor students.

We at the Office for Education Policy also care about the interactions between public charter schools and traditional public schools and decided to investigate what the data had to say about these questions. We examined student-level enrollment and academic data from the 2008-09 to 2014-15 school years. We tracked annual student moves to understand who leaves the Little Rock district for charters and how those moves impact racial and socioeconomic integration.

We found that students who left the district for charters were typical, both demographically and academically, and their exits increased racial and socioeconomic integration in the district.

As a reminder, charter schools are public schools. Like traditional public schools, there is no cost for students to attend. Unlike traditional public schools, to which students are assigned based on their address, open-enrollment charters are open to any student. Charters are authorized to serve a specific number of students, so students must apply for a seat. If more students want to attend than there are seats, students are selected through a random lottery. Students who are not selected can remain on a wait list. Charter schools cannot select or reject student applications based on demographic or academic characteristics. Charters must administer all state exams and abide by identical accountability requirements.

About 15 percent of students (excluding graduates) leave the Little Rock School District each year for some other schooling option. We were surprised to find that nearly half of these students (7 percent) leave the Arkansas public school system entirely–they move out of state, drop out, or select private or home school settings. Some (6 percent) move to other public school districts; half move nearby to the North Little Rock or Pulaski County districts, and half move to other public schools in the state. Perhaps surprisingly, given all of the attention given to charter transfers, only 2 percent (fewer than one of every seven who leave) of students transfer from the Little Rock district to charter schools each year!

What do we know about these students?

First, the 2 percent of students who transferred into area charters were representative of the district student population as a whole. Students who moved to charters were 64 percent black and 19 percent white, compared to the district population of 67 percent black and 20 percent white. Socioeconomically, 61 percent of students who moved to charters were eligible for free/reduced lunch, while 69 percent of district students participated. Students who left for area charters were not more likely to be white or economically advantaged than the overall district population.

Students who left for area charters performed similarly on state assessments as students who remained. In four of the six years examined, there were no statistically significant differences in scores between students who left for charters and those who remained in the district. However, students who left for charters were average performers in their school in all years examined. This finding refutes the argument that charters poach the best students.

Further, we found that when students exited the district for charters, the schools they left behind became less racially and/or socioeconomically segregated.

Our findings contradict critics’ concern that charters increase racial and socioeconomic segregation. One fact we must acknowledge is that Little Rock district schools are already racially and socioeconomically segregated. Thus, when students exit, they are most often leaving segregated settings. We found that black students who leave tend to exit schools with an above-average percentage of black students, and white students leave schools with an above-average percentage of white students.

Residential segregation in Little Rock, as in many other cities throughout the U.S., results in racial and socioeconomic segregation of residentially assigned public schools. Charter schools allow for students to enroll regardless of ZIP code. Little Rock families who choose to sever the link between where they live and the school that their children attend are countering the racial and socioeconomic segregation of traditional public schools.

Those who are passionate about equity should stop demonizing charters and chasing the false argument that charters cause segregation; instead, we should focus our collective energy on providing an affirming and effective learning environments for all Little Rock public school students–regardless of sector.

A wise school leader once said that “the students don’t care whether the sign outside the school says ‘Charter’ or not.” They simply need effective teachers who care about them and prepare them for the future.

Sarah C. McKenzie is the executive director of the Office for Education Policy at the University of Arkansas. Elise Swanson is a research assistant at the Office for Education Policy and a distinguished doctoral fellow in the Department of Education Reform at the University of Arkansas.

Editorial on 12/31/2016


Quality Counts 2017

In The View from the OEP on January 4, 2017 at 12:34 pm


Today Education Week released their annual Quality Counts report, which grades each state on their education performance.  This year Arkansas received an overall grade of C- and is ranked 43rd overall.  While receiving a C- is not new (Arkansas has received a C- for the last two years) our national ranking has slipped from 36th in 2015, to 41st in 2016, to the current 43rd.  As we have discussed in previous blog posts there are several issues with the grading system, and Arkansas’ scores have remained essentially stagnant.  We will dig into the report, but want to emphasize that we should not let this grade distract us from the work going on in the state.

This year’s report includes summative grades and rankings for states on education indicators as well as a special focus on transition to ESSA.

What is Being Graded?

A state’s overall grade is the average of its scores on three separate indicators: Chance-for-Success, K-12 Achievement and School Finance.  The format was updated in 2015 in an attempt to focus on “outcomes rather than on policy and processes.” Although the report can be useful there are several issues with the grading system; previous blog posts have discussed the flawed nature of the grading system.

Below are the most recent three years of  Arkansas grades in each of the categories considered for 2017.  The full report highlighting Arkansas student achievement can be accessed here.

Quality Counts Categories AR Grade 2015 AR Grade 2016 AR Grade 2017
Chance for Success C- C-  C-
School Finance C C-  C-
K-12 Achievement D+ D  D*

* Note: K-12 Achievement values are unchanged from the 2016 Quality Counts report

We will dig into the report, but want to emphasize that we should not be too distracted by this grade, which reflects

The High and the Low:

Each of the three areas are an average of many other scores, so here at OEP we wanted to bring out the high (ranked in top 15 states) and low (ranked in bottom 15 states) areas for each category.

Chance for Success: According to EdWeek, “The Chance-for-Success framework allows states to identify strong and weak links in their residents’ educational life course―their typical trajectory from childhood through adulthood.”

  • High scores:  Arkansas ranks 9th nationally in steady adult employment- the percent of adults in labor force working full-time and year round. We rank 15th in the percentage of students attending preschool!
  • Low scores: Arkansas ranked 49th in annual income and in percent of adults with a two- or four-year degree- only 30.3% of Arkansas adults have a postsecondary degree. We also ranked low in other indicators: family income, parental education, parental employment, elementary reading, middle school math, and postsecondary enrollment.

School Finance: Examining school finance can provide insight into how well a state is supporting public education. This measure is one of the most problematic in our opinion, as Arkansas supports education well in our view.

  • High scores: Spending on education Arkansas ranked 11th nationally in the percent of taxable resources spent on education even higher than Massachusetts!
  • Low scores: Arkansas provides near the national average in per pupil spending when adjusted for variations in regional costs.  Because Arkansas’ funding is so equitable across the state, only 14.7% of students are in districts where the expenditures are above the national average.  Although we received low scores for this measure, here at the OEP we think the equity is a good thing!

K-12 Achievement:  The K-12 Achievement Index is unchanged from the 2016 report because it uses data from the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) which is only administered every other year.  The Index examines 18 distinct state achievement measures related to reading and math performance, high school graduation rates, and the results of Advanced Placement exams.

  • High scores:  Arkansas ranked high in both 8th grade math gains and closing of the 4th grade reading achievement gap
  • Low scores: Arkansas ranked low compared to other states in math and reading achievement (2015 NAEP: 4th and 8th grade)

The strong scores summarized above reflect Arkansas’s commitment to education and that students are making gains.  The low scores reflect the many challenges that Arkansas students face: poverty, low parental and adult educational attainment, and, unfortunately, low achievement (especially in math). Although a D in student achievement is not what we would like to see, it is important to remember that these scores are old- from the 2015 NAEP administration and Arkansas’ students are making gains.

So what can we do?

This is EdWeek’s measure of educational quality, but here at OEP we don’t think it accurately captures all the strengths and areas for improvement.  ESSA is allowing states to develop measures of student achievement that are MEANINGFUL TO THEM.  Arkansas continues to gather input from stakeholders about what student success looks like for our state.  We recommend that you make your voice heard!

We believe that if policymakers and education leaders can focus on meaningful data, like student achievement AND growth, equity and efficiency in the face of disadvantage, and post-secondary transitions, students in Arkansas can continue to improve and reach greater levels of educational and lifelong success.