Update: School accountability bill would replace 'academic distress' with new tiered system

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JOHNNY KEY: The education commissioner at a community meeting in the Little Rock School District regarding controversial school closures. Key effectively acts as the school board for the LRSD and other districts taken over by the state. (File photo) - BRIAN CHILSON
  • BRIAN CHILSON
  • JOHNNY KEY: The education commissioner at a community meeting in the Little Rock School District regarding controversial school closures. Key effectively acts as the school board for the LRSD and other districts taken over by the state. (File photo)

Update, 2:15 p.m.:
A 42-page amendment was filed today to flesh out a shell bill from Sen. Jane English (R-North Little Rock) to rewrite the law on school accountability.

The Senate Education committee adopted the amendment and approved Senate Bill 647 on a voice vote. As first introduced this morning, English's amendment proposed extending the period of time that a school district can be controlled by the state Department of Education from five years to seven years. However, after some Democratic senators expressed unhappiness with that proposed change, Education Commissioner Johnny Key suggested a verbal amendment that would keep the current five year limit on state takeovers. The committee adopted that additional amendment before passing the bill.

School takeover is an especially sensitive subject in the Little Rock School District, which in January began its third year of takeover due to the "academic distress" classification of three out of the LRSD's 48 campuses. When a district is in state takeover, its locally elected school board is dissolved and the education commissioner assumes the powers of the school board.

SB 647 would repeal and replace ACTAAP, the Arkansas Comprehensive Testing, Assessment, and Accountability Program Act. Although it's a law that most parents are likely unfamiliar with, ACTAAP plays a major role in the administration of Arkansas public schools. ACTAAP is the state's implementation of federal accountability mandates created by No Child Left Behind, the legislation passed under President George W. Bush that ushered in the era of high-stakes standardized testing for K-12 students across the nation.

Under the Obama administration, Congress passed a successor law to No Child Left Behind, called the Every Student Succeeds Act, or ESSA. This was partly due to (bipartisan) dissatisfaction with the rigid requirements imposed by NCLB. The ACTAAP replacement proposed in SB 647 would "incorporate the flexibility" afforded to states by ESSA, Key told the committee today, and "move away from some of those compliance pieces of No Child Left Behind."

SB 647 would create the "Arkansas Educational Support and Accountability Act." Among other things, it would eliminate categories such as "academic distress," as well as "focus" and "priority" schools — labels used by the state to put school districts on varying degrees of notice regarding low academic performance. Instead, the bill would sort school districts into five tiers, ranging from Level 1 ("general" state support) to Level 5 ("intensive" state support, including the possibility of state takeover).

Sen. Linda Chesterfield (D-Little Rock) questioned if it mattered whether the Education Department called a district a "Level 5" or "in academic distress." Chesterfield, who has questioned whether state takeovers of struggling districts are beneficial to those districts, said the change amounted to putting "lipstick on a pig. ... We're still labeling schools, which means we're still labeling children."

Sen. Joyce Elliott (D-Little Rock) expressed concerns that the bill would put "more power in the hands of the commissioner in terms of what can and cannot be done." Key said he didn't think the bill vested power in the commissioner so much as give increased "flexibility" to the state Board of Education, which votes on matters such as school takeovers. Elliott said the history of the state board's votes has shown the body typically follows the commissioner's recommendations.

After Key signaled his amenability to reversing the proposed extension on school takeovers, no senator voted "no" on SB 647. However, Elliott urged caution and said the bill could still require additional changes in the House of Representatives, after education stakeholders digest its contents and weigh in. "This is a big bill. ... The interest of time is not a good enough reason for this to move quickly," she said.


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