Arkansas Education Secretary Jacob Oliva on Friday offered assurances to the state Board of Education that much work has been done and more is underway to carry out the terms of the new LEARNS Act revisions to pre-kindergarten through 12th grade education.
"The most important things that we want to share and make sure the public knows is that we have been very clear and transparent throughout this process to make sure every voice is heard," Oliva said. "When we have a recommendation to bring to this board [on different parts of the new law], we want to know we have looked at it from every angle," he said.
To that end, the state Division of Elementary and Secondary Education updates the LEARNS Act online portal almost daily, Oliva reported to the Education Board members who held their monthly business meeting in Pine Bluff on Friday.
"We welcome feedback. We want to get it right," Oliva told the board about what he called a "bold, monumental initiative" and one of the largest comprehensive education policy overhauls in the nation.
The LEARNS portal, which is at learns.ade.arkansas.gov, features some of the work -- including minutes and draft plans -- of six work groups and their subcommittees. The work group information is available from the main portal page by clicking on the three horizontal lines on the top right side of the main page.
Oliva and state board members discussed the implementation steps for Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders' signature 145-page LEARNS Act, or Act 237 of 2023, for revamping public education at a meeting in which the board also approved without discussion plans for two open-enrollment charter schools. Both of the schools -- one in Little Rock and the other in Bentonville -- are to open in the 2024-25 school year. The state's Charter Authorizing Panel had reviewed the proposed schools last month and recommended their approval to the Education Board.
LEARNS stands for literacy, empowerment, accountability, readiness, networking and safety. Work groups made up of educators and other citizens are helping draft implementation rules for the law. The work groups of different sizes are organized around early learning, parental empowerment, school safety, teaching and learning, educator workforce and career readiness.
The career readiness group and its subcommittees are composed of 32 members. The largest of the work groups with its subcommittees is the teaching and learning group, with 72 members. Altogether the groups have met 36 times.
Education Board member Ken Bragg of Sheridan asked Oliva who is writing what are expected to be more than 70 sets of rules for carrying out the LEARNS Act and other new education laws. Lisa Hunter of White Hall, another Education Board member, asked if the work group meetings are open to the public.
Oliva said the work groups and state agency staff and attorneys are working on those draft rules.
He also said the work group meetings are public and that public notice of the meetings is given. A lot of them are online and there is recorded video for viewing, he said.
Education Board Chairman Sarah Moore asked if the new $50,000 minimum teacher salary provided by the LEARNS Act is drawing teachers to Arkansas from other states. Oliva said there are anecdotal reports of that.
The state's education secretary hit on different elements of the law in his nearly hourlong update, telling for example of work to centralize the oversight and support of early childhood education. That has included the transferring of 250 state Department of Human Services employees in early childhood education oversight to the state Department of Education, he said.
Efforts are also being made to define what "kindergarten readiness means" for children and to select a test or screener for evaluating literacy needs among students in kindergarten through third grade.
Additionally, the state has employed to date 78 literacy coaches who are working in 190 D and F state-graded schools and some 4,000 kindergarten through third grade teachers, Oliva said.
Attention is also being paid to determine eligibility requirements for the award of $10,000 bonuses to educators as well for tutoring grants for students, college loan forgiveness for teachers, paid maternity leave for teachers and other employees and transportation innovation grants for school districts.
In the area of internet accessibility, Oliva said connectivity should be doubled statewide in the coming months. Work has similarly started on expanding career and technical education opportunities for students.
On the horizon is more work on the state's new year-end student testing program that will replace the ACT Aspire exams given in grades three through 10 since 2018. The new testing system provides an opportunity to alter how schools are graded, Oliva said, suggesting that the Education Board might take a "deep dive" on the topic starting in October.
The state board previously approved emergency rules for carrying out the Educational Freedom Account program that provides taxpayer-funded vouchers for students to apply to private school tuition and other costs. More permanent rules are in the works for the program in which about 70% of the state's private schools -- 94 schools and about 5,000 students -- are participating in this first year of a three-year, phased-in initiative, Oliva said.
Education Board members complimented the state agency for the ease that families have experienced in attaining the Educational Freedom Accounts.
"When you roll out a new program, there are nuances that come up along the way," Oliva said. "Overwhelmingly, we have gotten positive feedback, but we have definitely learned some things, [and] there will definitely be some changes."
The Division of Elementary and Secondary Education has been reorganized to group offices dealing with the different kinds of school choice together -- including the Educational Freedom Accounts, home schools and charter schools.
The LEARNS Act calls for removing any cap on the number of open-enrollment charter schools in the state. Oliva said recommendations on the process for approving the operation of charter schools will be forthcoming after a review of the existing approval and operating process and what other states do in regard to publicly funded charter programs.
The state currently has 22 operating charter schools or charter school systems.
Earlier in Friday's meeting, the Education Board accepted the recommendations from the state's Charter Authorizing Panel to approve state-issued charters for two new programs:
The Academy of Math and Science -- Arkansas, an open-enrollment charter school that would serve up to 600 in kindergarten through eighth grade in southwest Little Rock starting in 2024-25. The plan calls for the purchase, renovation and expansion of the Little Rock School District's now vacant David O. Dodd Elementary at 6423 Stagecoach Road. The college-preparatory elementary and middle school will be the first operated in Arkansas by the 20-year-old AMS Impact Group that operates nine schools in Phoenix and Tuscon, Ariz.
The Bentonville School for Advanced Studies, a liberal arts charter school that would serve grades five through 12. The school also has roots in an Arizona-based charter school system.