by Richard Abernathy
Education in Arkansas has reached a pivotal moment, and it is incumbent on us all to work together to ensure a bright future for our students. In order to understand this perspective, we need to review the history of education over the past 30 years.
In 1992, the Lake View School District filed a lawsuit against the state alleging that the school-funding system was unconstitutional. Over the course of nine years, the case worked its way through the court system ending with the state Supreme Court determining that Arkansas’ system of school finance was inadequate and inequitable.
Immediately following this decision, legislators and school administrators began meeting to determine a path forward that would solve both the adequacy and equity issues and improve education in our state. There were tense discussions between the groups, but both had a voice in the discussion and worked through the process. In 2007, the state was released from court supervision after putting forth a funding system that met both the adequacy and equity concerns.
The laws that resulted from the litigation better met the needs of students by providing adequate funding, adding programs to meet the needs of those hardest to serve and by spelling out accountability standards. Innovative intervention programs were developed for students who struggle in a traditional school setting. In addition, significant funding was put into place to ensure equitable facilities in which our children could learn.
Lake View brought about improved student achievement in reading and math. Arkansas’ scores on the National Assessment of Student Progress (NAEP) tests reached their highest levels in state history. School facilities improved across the state. New career and technical programs were developed to give our children employment opportunities. Curriculum offerings increased in advanced placement and concurrent credit courses. Teacher salaries rose from the lowest in our region to the regional average. Educational opportunities for our children were headed in the right direction, and this was a source of pride.
The laws that followed this historic lawsuit have not solved all educational issues. Some students struggle to read. Solving these issues is not going to be easy, and there are no simple answers. My dad had a saying that is appropriate here. “For the simple … everything is simple.”
Teaching children is not simple. They bring a variety of backgrounds with them to school. Many students have parents who provide a wealth of learning opportunities, food security and a safe and nurturing environment at home. Many other students come to school so burdened that we can’t imagine how they can worry about their education. They are in survival mode at all times, and the only safe and nurturing environment they know is school. The only balanced meals they receive are in the school lunchroom.
I hope you get the picture.
Teachers and administrators have a responsibility to teach ALL children. Here is a simple truth — we know that certain things work when it comes to teaching children. We know, and research supports, that professional learning communities provide a strategy that works for improving student learning. We must also have a safe and collaborative culture, effective teaching in every classroom, a guaranteed and viable curriculum backed by standards-based reporting of student progress and competency-based education that is researched as needed in order to have a quality educational program for every child.
Sounds simple, right? Remember my dad’s comment.
Let’s go back to Lake View for just a moment. Progress was made but has plateaued. Why? Did we take our eye off the ball? Are there other issues that we missed that are now pulling down scores? Again, the answer is not simple.
Funding model problems persist. There are disconnects between policy makers and those implementing the policies. A new study of what is needed for an adequate education has been discussed for several years. This would allow an opportunity to find and correct issues that may have been missed or added over time.
Here are some examples of things that were not considered during the adequacy study: school safety, mental health services and dyslexia are issues that our educators face daily but were not part of the original study. Teacher salary disparities persist. Closing the achievement gap, while challenging our top achievers, continues to be an issue. Matrix funding versus matrix expenditures continues to be problematic. Stagnant career- and technical-education funding has resulted in business and industries having difficulty finding qualified employees.
These issues are not simple or easily solved. It is time to conduct a thorough study that will provide a better understanding of the issues and to find solutions. The future of Arkansas’ children indeed is bright, but it takes education to turn on the light bulb.
Dr. Richard Abernathy is executive director of the Arkansas Association of Educational Administrators.