Arkansas Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders signed the Arkansas LEARNS Act into law on Wednesday, drawing an end to the the 145-page education reform legislation’s 16-day journey to passage. Now that the act has been signed into law with an emergency clause that can make it effective upon its Wednesday signing, school superintendents from Faulkner County and nearby areas are beginning the process of implementing the legislation in their schools ahead of the beginning of the 2023-2024 school year.
“Superintendents are concerned right now because this is going so quickly that they’re going to put an emergency clause on it and it will go into effect on July 1,” Guy-Perkins Schools Superintendent Joe Fisher said in an interview with the Log Cabin Democrat on Monday, two days before the governor signed the legislation. “We know that it has to go through the rules and regulations setting by the Department of Education and we’re just concerned that we’ve got to turn all of this into action in a matter of months.”
Fisher said the process to incorporate the act’s initiatives into district practices takes time ahead of the next school year.
“Superintendents are willing to do whatever it takes with whatever rules or regulations that are given to us,” Fisher said. “We just need time so that we can make sure we update our handbooks [and] policies. There’s a process it takes to put all of this into play, and honestly, I wish that we could possibly incorporate this across the year piece-by-piece, or even at the beginning of the 2024-2025 school year.”
Mayflower Public Schools Superintendent Andy Chisum spoke similarly as Fisher in an interview with the Log Cabin on Thursday, saying that there are many unknowns ahead as implementation of the LEARNS Act begins. Most immediately, Chisum said he’s not sure how his district’s pay packages will look for its next round of employee contracts, an important move that school leaders must make every spring.
Fisher and Chisum also told the Log Cabin that the speed at which the LEARNS Act moved through the state legislature, 16 days, was a source of concern. Chisum described the legislation as “lengthy, [and] shoved through a little quickly,” adding that he has received “communication after the fact” about Arkansas LEARNS, but very little beforehand when legislators started crafting the bill. Fisher also discussed what he sees as a lack of discussion with educational professionals in the act’s design.
“One of the fundamental things that’s important is that there should’ve been all of the voices at the table to help develop this,” Fisher said. “It’s been labeled as a far-reaching piece of legislation, but it’s also been labeled as an inclusive piece, and I’m just not sure who was included in that at the table.”
Now that Arkansas LEARNS has been signed into law, Chisum is hopeful that school leaders will be involved in the rule-writing process that is set to begin at the Arkansas Department of Education, adding that having people who understand how rules are implemented in schools will help that process run smoothly.
Another concern local education leaders shared was the funding mechanism that will be used for putting the act’s initiatives into place. Under the LEARNS Act, Arkansas will now pay teachers a minimum salary of $50,000, skyrocketing the state’s minimum teacher salary to fourth in the country. Additionally, teachers who already make more than the minimum will receive a raise of at least $2,000. All of the superintendents the Log Cabin spoke to, including Fisher, Chisum, Conway Public Schools Superintendent Jeff Collum and Wonderview School District Superintendent Jamie Stacks expressed their support for the increase in teacher pay, as well as other initiatives in the act that center on school safety, pre-kindergarten education and reading scores, among others. But, superintendents agreed that the funding mechanism for those initiatives still isn’t clear to them.
“I think there are some very positive elements in the bill,” Collum said. “For example, the focus on improving reading scores, more pay for staff and the school safety initiatives are all positive. The biggest question I think everyone is asking is how will it all be funded and how sustainable are these initiatives. I am 100 percent supportive of raises for staff [and] I would hope it is something that can be implemented across the board for all staff and is affordable for districts in the long run,” later adding that “funding and sustainability would be my major concerns.”
For Fisher, the superintendent of a small rural school district, he believes the increase in teacher pay could help his district retain staff, but he’s not certain where the money will come from.
“We’re all about paying our teachers more money, but we’re still a little unsure of how that funding mechanism is going to work,” Fisher said. “We have not seen that formula [or] the matrix. We think it can be beneficial to help keep our teachers in smaller schools, but we’re just not sure what the funding mechanism looks like and we want to be able to fund it and still operate our school district for the other needs we have.”
Chisum also expressed concerns about the “sustainability” of the Arkansas LEARNS Act and said he wants to see how the initiatives and the funding they require balance out as there is currently a “lack of clarity,” while Stacks discussed her concerns about whether classified staff will also see a pay increase.
More clarity might be coming soon, however. Chisum said Education Secretary Jacob Oliva has notified superintendents he will meet with them at education cooperatives around the state soon and provide them a chance to ask questions about what’s ahead. Additionally, per statements on the governor’s website about the “myths” about Arkansas LEARNS, the bill “uses a mixture of existing state fund and federal grants to fund the price tag.”
The Log Cabin reached out to State Sen. Jonathan Dismang, a cosponsor of the original Arkansas LEARNS bill, and State Rep. Steve Magie, a democrat who voted against the bill, for their thoughts on the act’s passage. As of press time on Friday, neither responded.
Fisher does believe there is a need to reform aspects of the education system in Arkansas.
“I think we need to create a system where all of our students can be successful, but all of our teachers can be successful helping our students,” Fisher said. “I’m fundamentally for looking at how we can do things better for teaching and learning. What I’m concerned about are some of the things that are in the bill that have not been looked at all the way to the end of the process.”
The timing of implementing the legislation’s initiatives remains a concern for Fisher.
“Education is a large system, and with this far-reaching legislation, it’s going to affect many parts in that system,” Fisher said. “And trying to get everything on board so that we can help students be successful next year and especially helping our teachers feel confident about what they’re doing, I’m just a little concerned that it maybe close time to right now.”
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