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OPINION | BEN KUTYLO: Seek excellence

Do more for Arkansas’ students by BEN KUTYLO SPECIAL TO THE DEMOCRAT-GAZETTE | December 19, 2020 at 8:57 a.m.

Every Arkansas student deserves an excellent education. A report presented to Arkansas' House and Senate Education Committees earlier this month recommends that we should do more to provide our students with the opportunities they deserve, particularly high-need students and those from economically disadvantaged backgrounds.

The report, developed by researchers at Augenblick, Palaich & Associates (APA), makes several recommendations to aid the state in providing an equitable education to all students, as is constitutionally required. As APA recommends, we should re-examine the ways in which we distribute state dollars to schools in order to both fully fund their needs and free up other sources of funding for their intended purposes. There are a handful of areas, however, in which we should go further to specifically provide high-need students with an excellent and equitable education.

One area on which we should focus attention is the use of "Enhanced Student Achievement" funding, which is intended to help schools close the achievement gap between more affluent students and their less advantaged peers. These funds should be utilized to a higher degree on proven means of closing the gap, such as pre-K, before- and after-school programming, and tutoring.

Similarly, the APA report suggests developing a task force to further investigate and address the out-of-school factors that inhibit performance for high-need students. The state should take up this suggestion with an immediate focus on the biggest out-of-school factor inhibiting performance: access to affordable, reliable broadband. While strides have been made, the covid-19 pandemic and the shift to remote learning has exacerbated this issue and increased the urgency to close the digital divide for Arkansas students.

APA also recommends we reconsider current resource levels in certain areas, including student-to-teacher ratios for students in kindergarten through third grade. Indeed, research suggests that class-size reductions can have significantly positive long-term effects on student achievement when introduced in the earliest grades and for students from less advantaged backgrounds. Though finding more high-quality teachers to fill smaller classrooms may be a difficult (and costly) endeavor, especially in today's world, there is perhaps no strategy more important to all Arkansas students.

Together, we can and must do better to provide all students with the access and support they need to succeed. Achieving the vision we all have for our children's future and moving from discussions of educational adequacy to educational excellence means investing in strategies like these as well as in more innovative school and instructional models. If we do, our hope is that Arkansas' schools can be well-positioned to emerge from the covid-19 pandemic stronger than ever.

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Ben Kutylo is executive director at ForwARd Arkansas, a nonprofit whose mission is to accelerate the innovative and equitable transformation of education in Arkansas.

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