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Worry, optimism expressed as superintendents in Arkansas prepare for LEARNS’ impact

by Josh Snyder | April 3, 2023 at 4:44 a.m.
Arkansas superintendents are shown in these undated file photos. From left are Clinton School District Superintendent Jay Chalk, Bentonville School District Superintendent Debbie Jones and Jacksonville North Pulaski Superintendent Jeremy Owoh. (Left, NWA Democrat-Gazette/Charlie Kaijo; center, NWA Democrat-Gazette/David Gottschalk; right, courtesy photo)

As school district leaders in Arkansas look ahead to their first year under the LEARNS Act, many have expressed a mix of optimism and wariness over what changes the education overhaul will bring for their staff members, students and their families.

The LEARNS Act has been the top priority for Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders since she took office in January. The bill, hailed by Sanders as "the largest overhaul of the state's education system in Arkansas history," includes school vouchers, raises for beginning teachers from $36,000 to $50,000 and by $2,000 for others, a dual diploma program for high school students learning a trade, and a repeal of the Teacher Fair Dismissal Act.

Department of Education Secretary Jacob Oliva described the 145-page law as "a holistic approach that streamlines a fragmented system from cradle to career and addresses everything."

"It gives the state board, the school districts, teachers, leaders, the ability to make the decisions that work best for the students that they serve," he said.

Oliva said LEARNS is "about investing in local public schools," adding that he believes they "should be the first and best choice" for students and their families.

If those schools are unable to meet a family's needs, "then parents should have the flexibility to have some choices," he said.

[READ MORE: What you need to know about the LEARNS Act »]

Sanders campaigned on a broad outline of education change that called for parental empowerment, new literacy standards and accountability for teachers, but she didn't disclose details of her plan until Feb. 8. The LEARNS Act was signed into law exactly one month later.

Mountain Home School District Superintendent Brent Howard said the fast pace of the overhaul, from its introduction to signing, has left district leaders with questions about the limits of LEARNS' funding and the consequences it will have. Though Howard said he is confident his district can weather any challenges that come its way, the 27-year education veteran admitted the large volume of questions he still has have left him "really worried."

"I've never experienced anything like this in my life," he said. "I've never seen anything be rushed through with the speed that this bill has had."


District officials have expressed widespread appreciation for the salary increases provided to teachers.

"They truly deserve it," said Jay Chalk, Clinton School District superintendent.

Chalk joined other superintendents in voicing concerns about the limits of LEARNS' funding for educators and other school staff, though.

In addition to leaving districts to decide for themselves to what degree they can reward educators' experience and education, any raises districts plan to give for classified staff, such as bus drivers, custodians and cafeteria workers, or employees in federally funded positions must be funded through other sources.

Districts will continue to receive per-pupil funding through the adequacy process. That process determines how much the state will spend on public schools for the next two years. The per-student foundation funding is the largest part of state funding for public education. Schools also receive supplemental state and federal funds for education.

House Bill 1688 calls for an increase in the per-student foundation funding by $205 to $7,618 for the 2023-2024 school year. For the 2024-2025 school year, the legislation calls for the per-student funding to increase to $7,771. The per-pupil funding for the 2022-2023 school year is $7,413.

The bill advanced by a state House committee on Thursday includes a $2-an-hour increase for classified staff.

Despite the increase, Harrison School District Superintendent Stewart Pratt said he is among district leaders who are concerned about retaining employees with raises not covered by LEARNS, including classified staff.

His district has roughly 200 classified employees, and about 216 licensed staff, according to Pratt.

He said many districts, including Harrison, try to build a culture that encourages people to work there. However, they must compete with other industries, such as fast food, with large sign-on bonuses and $15-an-hour starting wages.

"It's hard for [classified staff] to look at their family and say I'm staying because of 'culture' when I've got a $2 an hour differential between the school and businesses downtown," Pratt said.

Bentonville School District Superintendent Debbie Jones said such classified employees are critical to schools.

"The district does not run if we don't have enough bus drivers," she said. "They're as necessary as teachers."

Her district will recommend raises for its classified staff, according to Jones.

Pratt said that districts must aim to provide a salary that not only retains cafeteria workers, custodians and other classified staff, but also ensures that they feel like they can survive at home.

"We've got to find a way to make sure that our team, all team members, feel supported monetarily," he said. "Not just licensed staff."

The Harrison superintendent remained optimistic about his district's ability to retain employees, despite any challenges they face.

"We've got great people in Harrison and I trust our bus drivers and our cooks, our custodians, maintenance staff," he said. "They are really, really good people. I just want to take care of them."

Regarding the foundation funding bill working its way through the Legislature, Jacksonville North Pulaski Superintendent Jeremy Owoh likewise said that "any suggested increase is definitely appreciated and needed." The superintendent described the expectation that the funding would increase over time as a "positive."

Owoh pointed out, though, that lawmakers in November recommended a higher figure for the next school year. The House Education Committee recommended $8,129 per pupil, while the Senate Education Committee recommended $8,150.

House Education Chair Brian Evans, one of the bill's sponsors, said the per-student funding was less than what lawmakers initially proposed because there isn't a need to increase insurance for full-time staff. The bill calls for the school districts to pay a health insurance contribution rate set by the General Assembly.

HB1688 will next go to the House of Representatives for a vote.

Chalk, the Clinton School District superintendent, said the wait for approval on foundation funding figures is difficult, especially as the end of the school year approaches.

"We're running out of time, and we're having to wait to hear from the state what's going to be," he said. "That's my one hope that keeps me hanging on."

According to Owoh, the Jacksonville North Pulaski district likes to issue its contracts by May 1.

"We're in the season of constructing new teacher, all-staff contracts, so we need some decisions to be made sooner [rather] than later," he said.


Owoh expressed enthusiasm for the support LEARNS provides for improving school security, as it has been a key focus for his district.

"That's something we've made a priority since Day 1," he said.

Included in LEARNS are calls for the creation of district safety and security teams, new training requirements for school resource officers and "comprehensive" school safety assessments.

"It's sad, it's unfortunate that we have to go to the next level in securing our buildings and providing additional safety," Owoh said. "But when I hear my students say they feel safe, it's definitely worth those additional safety measures."


Oliva is visiting Arkansas' 15 educational cooperatives to talk with district leaders about improving education and answer questions about LEARNS.

"I think it's important to know that our agency is working with districts, every single district to answer all of their questions, and to identify opportunities that we can make sure that we're implementing this initiative with fidelity, and we're going to continue to do so," he said.

The cooperative meetings are not open to the public, said Kimberly Mundell, spokeswoman for the state Department of Education.

Beyond these meetings, Oliva said the agency is responding to districts' questions about LEARNS.

"A district might call and say 'Can you explain the numbers in this category? Which teachers were calculated? Which ones weren't?'" he said.

According to Oliva, such communication has helped districts to come around to being more comfortable with implementing the education overhaul.

"The feedback that we've gotten from pretty much everyone is everybody feels a lot better about understanding what we're trying to do," he said.

Owoh said he was unable to attend his cooperative's meeting, but received notes from the session and was kept informed on how it went.

During the meeting with Owoh's cooperative, Oliva acknowledged unknowns remained regarding the implementation of LEARNS and that amendments were likely, the superintendent said.

Mike Hernandez, executive director of the Arkansas Association of Educational Administrators, said clear communication between the state, districts and their staff will be critical as the state moves to implement LEARNS.

"That part gives me some concern," he said. "Obviously, we have a way that we've been doing things for a long time, and when you change there's a lot of opportunity for people that are upset and not understanding that."

Hernandez said he is confident communication will become clearer as implementation moves forward.

Owoh said he has been working to keep educators and staff at the Jacksonville North Pulaski School District informed on the process.

"They're just wanting to hear from me face-to-face on how this is going to impact the profession moving forward," the superintendent said.

Owoh said he understood the concerns district staff members have expressed about the law, including questions about due process. The superintendent described himself as fortunate for being able to attend sessions about LEARNS at the Capitol.

"There's a lot of unknowns from people who are actually involved," he said. "So imagine the concerns from those who are not directly involved."

Information for this article was contributed by Neal Earley of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.

Print Headline: Reviews in districts mixed for LEARNS


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