Tue April 25, 2023

By Jeff Smithpeters

Governor Sanders answers questions on LEARNS Act at Town Hall in Texarkana today

Governor Sarah Huckabee Sanders and Arkansas Secretary of Education Jacob Oliva gave opening statements and then addressed questions at a Town Hall meeting held today in the new Farmers Bank & Trust Workforce Center on the Texarkana campus of University of Arkansas Hope-Texarkana.

During a town hall today on the recently passed LEARNS Act, Governor Sarah Huckabee Sanders was asked specifically about a matter that has been on the minds of many teachers and school system administrators since the bill was released from the governor's office: whether the raises to teacher pay will be fully financed by the state beyond the next two years.

“So one of the big pieces of misinformation that's out there surrounding the Arkansas LEARNS legislation is that the districts are on the hook for the pay raises. And nothing could be further from the truth,” Governor Sanders said. “This state is covering all of the funding in perpetuity for the teacher pay increase. The foundation funding that every district was already receiving is … they're still getting that.

“And right now on as the state is already funding every teacher across the state, at about $73,000 per teacher to cover salary, benefits, insurance. And this money is on top of what the state is already giving to the districts to pay teachers. So the districts are not taking on any additional burden. This is being covered fully by the state of Arkansas, to make up the difference, to go from $36,000 to $50,000, as well as make sure that every single teacher in the state gets at least a $2,000 raise, if not more.”

The question came from a participant in a town hall that took place in a room of the new Farmers Bank & Trust Workforce Center on the Texarkana campus of University of Arkansas-Hope Texarkana. Every seat was filled among the rows of chairs set up for the event, which started promptly at noon with Arkansas State Senator Breanne Davis (R-Russelville) acting as host while Governor Sarah Huckabee Sanders sat at a table alongside Arkansas Secretary of Education Jacob Oliva.

The event began with an introduction by Davis who was the lead sponsor of the bill in the Senate, then an opening statement from Sanders describing the intent behind the LEARNS Act, which was passed by the Arkansas legislature and signed into law March 8.  Governor Sanders said she was grateful for the education she had received in Arkansas, which included her preschool, elementary and junior high years in Texarkana. “I would not be in a place that I am had I not had teachers who cared about me, believed in me, were willing to invest their time in me,” she said.

“There is nothing that makes me more proud than the transformational change that I think that we are bringing to our state's education system,” Governor Sanders said.  She added that she knew what was needed was wholesale change, not a bill that “tinkered with” the current system.

Leading off with a description of the pay raises the LEARNS Act provides teachers, beginning with a $50,000 yearly starting salary and providing all teachers with at least a $2,000 yearly raise, Sanders then said “We also wanted to empower parents, making sure that parents have the ability to make the decisions that are best for their kid. We know that the one size fits all doesn't work. What works in Texarkana may not work in Eldorado or Bentonville or Jonesboro, so we wanted to give flexibility to parents as well as districts so that they can make a determination about how best to educate their kids.”

She explained that the LEARNS Act also focuses on generating results in student abilities. “We feel like we have really delivered on some of the key components that are very data driven to see the kind of results I think all of us want for our kids here in the state.”

Governor Sanders then introduced her Secretary of Education, Jacob Oliva, about whom she said, “I love the fact that he's been a teacher, he's been a principal, he's been an administrator. And he has such a vast and well-rounded experience that he brings to this role, and has done a phenomenal job.”

Oliva thanked the governor and then said the central question he faced in his role was “how do we take a system that may be uncoordinated or a little bit fragmented, and get that system aligned, so that we can make sure that we're setting up students for success?” He referred to the LEARNS Act as a “blueprint” and a “map” for achieving this purpose.  Oliva found, he said, in travelling the state, stopping at its educational co-ops and talking to teachers and administrators that “What they need is a little bit more unified support and mak[ing] sure that our investments that we're putting into our teachers and into our schools and to our districts are aligned with with the need.”

Oliva said the LEARNS Act considers a student’s education experience in the state “from the cradle to the career.”  Starting with “early child care,” the education leadership became aware of places in the state where its availability is lacking. The LEARNS Act, he said, has “taken kind of a fragmented early learning system, and put it all under one agency so that we can have a common vision of what is early learning.”

Oliva said literacy measures of third graders’ reading scores has been an oft-mentioned statistic because of the importance with which that grade is viewed by educators based on its being predictive of a student's abilities in multiple subjects throughout their education. Additional reading coaches for learners having difficulty will be hired to augment a reworked reading curriculum. After school tutoring will also be supported. In addition a provision allows, said, Oliva, “for parents to receive up to a $500 a year scholarship to get tutoring above and beyond the school day because we have to invest in that early literacy space.”

Oliva said the LEARNS Act favors the creation of multiple paths for different kinds of students, not just those on the college track, but those pursuing careers not requiring college degrees but needing skilled labor. “It allows us to create a workforce high school diploma, where we know that there's plenty of students that are earning credentials of value in industry certifications, and participating in robust programs while they're in high school, that may make their students eligible to work, or maybe pursue post-secondary opportunities.” He added that he wanted to avoid the situation in which students going to colleges elsewhere in the state after taking courses at places like UAHT finding that their earlier courses aren’t counted by their college.

Oliva also described visits to the state’s 15 educational cooperatives and conversations he had with superintendents and other school officials to explain the LEARNS Act and dispel misconceptions. He said Governor Sanders had asked why couldn’t they do a similar thing but with public meetings. “I said, ‘Absolutely.’ So we're here today to do just that. And Senator Davis is going to facilitate some questions and answers, but we're really here to clarify that, ask questions and hear good ideas, because we need to get this right,” he said.

Governor Sanders said she would take the question and allow Secretary Oliva to follow up.  Sanders began by saying she had been disturbed by the fact that only 35 percent of Arkansas third graders are reading at a third grade or above reading level. “To me that’s an unacceptable number.” She also said the highest scoring county in this measurement had reached 46 percent.

Third-grade reading ability is important, Sanders said, for what it portends about students’ performances later. “There's a famous saying, when it comes to reading that up until third grade, a child is learning to read and, after that, they're reading to learn, and that's why that third grade mark is so important, because if they don't hit that grade level reading by that point, they start to fall behind in everything else and often they never catch up. We know too that if you look at the people that are incarcerated in the state of Arkansas, 70 percent of those individuals can't read. It is such a startling statistic. And we have, frankly, not done enough to make sure our kids are hitting that benchmark.”

She added that the LEARNS Act will provide for 120 reading coaches to be hired and “deployed to the districts in the highest level of need.”  She also mentioned that parents can receive $500 for after-school tutoring. Currently, she said, the state is trying to find out more about the need for pre-K in all of its districts so that it can fund pre-K.

Secretary Oliva said that if third graders were promoted without scoring at grade-level for reading, they would still receive instruction based on individualized plans to address their weaknesses. “When they go to fourth grade, [the LEARNS Act] guarantees that that student has an independent learning plan to meet the needs of that student, that they're going to receive at least 90 minutes of literacy instruction by a qualified teacher each and every single day.” The teaching of reading in general, he said, would be guided “by evidence based strategies that we know work around the science of reading. And then if students still need some support, which some students will, to guarantee that they have access to those additional supports they need moving forward.”

The next questioner asked how the achievements of home-schooled students would be measured after the parents receive state funds.

Governor Sanders explained that the Educational Freedom Account was not mandatory for parents of home-schooled students to use. But if those parents do opt to receive funding, a test would need to be taken by the student to ensure that student’s learning fits state standards.  Sanders said currently a process was under way to determine the rules for this process. “I think we've had 1,200 applications from around the state for people to participate in the rule process. And they're finalizing those working groups. And so they will make that final determination of what those tests and what that accountability officially looks like. But you will not be able to receive funding if you do not agree on the front end to have accountability on the backend,” she said.

Secretary Oliva added that the goal of LEARNS was to upgrade local public schools, but “We also know that that neighborhood school may not meet the needs of all students and families, and parents need to have options available to them. What we don't want is choice just to have choice, we want quality choice. … We're going to put up those parameters and guardrails so that if there is a bad actor that tries to set up in this space, that they will be held accountable. We're not going to tolerate people abusing a system for personal gain.”

At that point, Davis asked for questions from attendees who had not submitted their questions in advance.  A grandmother described her teenaged grandson as having Dravet Syndrome, an epileptic condition that starts in infancy, resulting in frequent seizures and slowed development. She asked how the LEARNS Act would account for educating her grandson.

Governor Sanders thanked her for her passion and advocacy for her son. Then she said the grandmother’s case was an example of why a one size fits all system would not work. “I have three kids. And I can tell you that all three of them are completely different. They have very different needs, they learn very differently, they need different types of instruction. Imagine an entire district full of kids that are going to need individual and different things. We wanted to provide as much flexibility as possible, not just to the district, but also to parents, allowing them to make a decision about where their child can best be educated.”

Secretary Oliva added that if parents of students with special needs are feeling lost about what to do for their children, more could be done by the state to communicate what services are available for students like the questioner’s grandson.  He also said the best intervention for such students is early intervention.  He also said that with such students it was important for educators to set up circumstances in classrooms that reach the standard of the “least restrictive environment possible.”

Oliva also said research had shown the best approach to teaching students with special needs was not to isolate them but to place them in typical classroom settings “with their peers.” In such situations, Oliva said, “their learning goes up and everybody else’s goes up.” The LEARNS Act, he said, calls for individualized plans for each special needs student that makes sure all the resources that are needed for the student are brought to that student.

Here, Senator Davis said one of the things she most heard in criticism of the LEARNS Act was that it would be bad for special needs students.  Davis said such statements “bother me, because I do have a four-year-old who has Down Syndrome, and why would I be a part of a bill that would hurt her education along the way and do that to other people in the Down Syndrome Community and the special needs community?” Davis pointed to the Education Freedom Account, which allows parents to use state funding to attend a private school.  One particular school that serves special needs students, Davis said, had an increase in enrollment after the passage of a precursor to the Education Freedom Account.

“They have a waiting list of 150 kids,” Davis said. “They have people trying to get in their doors, because they are meeting the needs and educating kids with disabilities. And so I just say that to speak to the fact that public schools I know are doing everything they can to meet the needs and educate kids that have disabilities. But there are also private schools out there that are looking to meet those needs.”

The next questioner was a teacher who told of having many years ago to teach a class of 37 first-graders. “Oh, that’s not allowed,” Governor Sanders said when the questioner mentioned this. The questioner said she could confirm the idea that third grade reading skills were so crucial, because if students were not able to read at that point, that’s when they would begin to act out, especially boys. She said young teachers would need to be taught how to teach reading.

Governor Sanders said “I think there's a special place in heaven for anybody who could manage 37 first graders. I have one first grader at my house, and sometimes that's more than I can handle.”

“I want to tell you, Sarah,” said the questioner, “I was probably making less than $24,000.”

“Well, we’ve made significant progress,” the governor replied. “Significantly higher pay and smaller class sizes. I don't disagree. I mean, that is why one of the biggest priorities of the LEARNS legislation is the literacy piece, because we know what a huge difference it makes. I'm also happy to hear that you didn't see the boys showing out until third grade, because that also started much earlier at our house.”  

Sanders then described an occasion when one of her own children fell behind in reading: “One of the things that I know firsthand--I'm going back to each of my kids learning differently--one of my kids in their kindergarten class had a teacher who was trained in the science of reading and quickly identified that they were missing a couple of key things that were holding them back from really being a good solid reader. They pulled that child out, and they met with a reading specialist for six weeks for 30 minutes a day. And now, my child is in the fifth grade and reading on a seventh grade reading level.”

Governor Sanders said the LEARNS Act has “additional funding and resources for current teachers to go back and have that ability to learn the science of reading. We know it is the most evidence-based literacy program out there that exists to really help students understand how to read, and what to look for and how they can correct those things at an earlier point.”

The next questioner asked whether the LEARNS Act allows parents who home-school their children to work collaboratively with public school districts.

Governor Sanders explained that the LEARNS Act does allow for that but also allows for coordination among private schools and public schools so that if one school lacks a specialty class, a student from another school or who is home-schooled can attend that class.  This policy came to her attention, Sanders said, after meeting with teachers and administrators of Delta schools in Helena and being convinced of the need for such coordination.

Secretary Oliva said another part of the LEARNS Act will allow for teachers, administrators and students to monitor a student’s progress through the use of a common software all school personnel will use from early childhood on to share information about a student’s progress up to the present time and pick up on students who may need individualized help.  He expects the software will come into use after the next school year, in 2024-25, and the assessments that go into the system to be done in a place and time that will not interfere with a teacher’s instructional time.

At this point came the question about whether LEARNS provides for funding for teachers’ raises on a continuing basis.  Governor Sanders answered that it was a common misconception that the Act does not do so and such funding has been provided “in perpetuity.”

The next questioner asked about how parents seek education for their students with special needs in rural areas. She mentioned that from her home district in Lafayette County, students had to travel to Texarkana for specialized teaching.

Secretary Oliva said that while the LEARNS Act might not have all the answers to the problem of education access for special needs students in rural area, that it would allow for information to be collected about potential solutions. “It's about getting these pieces in place so that we can identify that. And when we can identify where access to high quality services flags, we know what the mission is, and we can work with the school district, we can work with educational cooperatives, the faith-based community, civic organizations. It's really about opening up the conversation to the next step.”

Davis pointed out that the private Easterseals Academy in Little Rock, which specializes in special needs instruction, had once been in the position of having to close for lack of students, but the passage of the precursor to the Education Freedom Account allowed parents to use state funds to pay for their children to attend and the school had then seen a major increase in students. “Hopefully we can see things like Easterseals replicate in other communities across the state,” Davis said.

The next questioner told of her daughter taking a test this week at a computer but not being able to read the test.  Sanders and Oliva said that the results of testing allows the school and the state to know which resources should be sent to which place.  Oliva said, “The reality is, there's some students that that's not an appropriate assessment for that there needs to be an alternative assessment, where students of special needs can still demonstrate growth in what they learn in a manner that works best for them. And speaking to the accommodation modifications, we need to make sure we hit that right. It shouldn't be used to be punitive in nature.  It’s used to be able to give information to parents into the schools about the supports that the child needs. I’m happy to have a deeper conversation about your child's situation, and what type of assessments they're being asked to participate in.”  Indeed Oliva and Governor Sanders did meet with the questioner after the town hall adjourned.

The next questioner advocated for his after school program which is funded by a state grant. Governor Sanders responded that she would like to hear more about the program, which, she said could benefit from parents using $500 scholarships to enroll their children.

The next questioner, who identified herself as a curriculum development staffer at Ashdown School District, asked if the LEARNS Act addressed the low pay of classified school employees, those who often assist teachers in their duties.  The governor said the Act did provide a $2 an hour raise for these workers.

The last questioner was Curt Green, a Texarkana Real Estate agent, who said the economy was in most need of skilled workers. Sanders responded that during her campaign and in her meetings with industrial employers, the common request was for more skilled workers. “They could not find and hire the skilled, qualified workforce that they needed to fill the jobs that they had, everywhere I went,” she said. “And so that was one of the big catalysts for spending so much time and energy focusing on education and creating a solid foundation. We spent so much time over the last several decades, focusing on what a student knows, instead of focusing on what a student can do, and we have to retrain our brain and look at education from a completely different perspective.”

Sanders also explained that one of her first acts as governor was to create a Workforce Cabinet which would allow for the workforce officials in six state agencies to regular meet and be coordinated by a newly created Chief Workforce Officer.  “I'm very hopeful that Arkansas will create a blueprint that works across the country for how to address the workforce shortage. I think we're on the cusp of some really great things. Building that strong foundation for students in the classroom and partnering with all of the stakeholders as they move through is really going to make a huge difference. And I think that we're going to be very successful in addressing the workforce shortage across the state.”

The last questioner was from the Fouke School District. He asked for details about the merit incentives for teachers in the LEARNS Act.

Secretary Oliva answered that the rules for dispensing merit-based raises were still being determined but would be based on measuring the teacher’s impact on student performances. The complication is that some teachers, like those for band, might have impacts not measured in standardized tests.  But the LEARNS Act, Oliva said, “returns the teacher salary schedule back to the local level where the community and the school district can develop a salary schedule that works best for them. And we're hearing a lot of great success and some innovative approaches to how you compensate, not just raising the base teacher salary, but how do you recognize years and years of service, or advanced degrees or credentials.”

Governor Sanders here ended the town hall, thanking participants and attendees and saying she looked forward to hearing more ideas on how to improve the LEARNS Act as it moved into its rulemaking phase.