FORT SMITH — Arkansas Secretary of Education Jacob Oliva visited the University of Arkansas at Fort Smith on Friday to talk to the public about the LEARNS Act and the plan to improve education in the state.
Oliva was appointed by Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders as secretary for the Arkansas Department of Education. The Arkansas Board of Education also selected Oliva as commissioner of its Division of Elementary and Secondary Education on Jan. 12.
The LEARNS Act is Sanders’ education overhaul. It amends various provisions of Arkansas code related to early childhood through grade 12 education in the state. Some highlights include increasing the minimum teacher salary from $36,000 to $50,000, which would move Arkansas from 48th to fifth in the nation in beginning salary and implementing a bonus program providing up to $10,000 for teachers achieving the best results.
LEARNS stands for literacy, empowerment, accountability, readiness, networking and safety.
Oliva said he thinks it’s important to know where the state stands on education and why they’ve implemented things such as the LEARNS Act. He said in the most recent U.S. News & World Report ranking, Arkansas ranked 43rd in overall education, and in talking to school district leaders he heard people say they were surprised the ranking was that high.
“It makes me have this wonder of why we have low expectations or why do we have apathy toward not being No. 1,” Oliva said. “And I can tell you that we’re coming in with a mindset — we’ve got some superintendents here and cooperative directors here — we’ve got a mindset that we can be No. 1, and it starts with that vision that all students can learn and all students can be successful, and it’s up to us to give school districts and leaders the resources and the tools they need to ensure that.” Oliva said the LEARNS Act covers everything from cradle to career, including making sure everyone has access to quality child care so students enter kindergarten ready to learn.
“The schools can’t do it alone; communities can’t do it alone. Can we partner with people like the people in this room and the chamber? Can we partner with businesses, find ways to incentivize early learning programs even within our industries and make sure that we’re able to provide access?” he said.
Oliva said there’s a third grade benchmark to see if students are reading at or above grade level because up to that point students are learning how to read and afterward they are reading to learn. He said if there are gaps in a student’s kindergarten readiness and reading comprehension, schools have a lot of catching up to do.
“Right now as a state on the metrics that we use, we use a standardized assessment across the state called ACT Aspire. According to that metric it’s about 36% of our third graders are at or above grade level,” Oliva said. “We know that we can do a little bit better, so we’re going to make sure that districts have the support they need.” An attendee asked Oliva what the state’s plan is if, for whatever reason, a student doesn’t meet that third grade reading goal on time.
Oliva said the state is rewriting standards to make sure there is clear and concise language for teachers at each grade level to define reading standards for students. He said part of that legislation is creating a plan to support a student if they aren’t meeting those standards.
“We’re going to require students that have been identified as having holes to have access to a highly effective teacher, make sure they have a 90-minute literacy block and that they have an individualized literacy plan and those target strategies to follow with them,” Oliva said. “Additionally, when you look at filling those gaps, we’re going to make sure we have a statewide progress measuring system that measures for that and dyslexia screeners, because a lot of times there’s students that have dyslexia or specific learning disabilities that need different strategies and support.” Oliva said it is a priority to recognize all students aren’t on a path leading to college and that schools need a system to have obtainable career goals. He said Fort Smith’s Peak Innovation Center is a good example of this, and the state needs to figure out how to do that on a bigger scale so all students can have that opportunity.
The center opened to students in March 2022 and is a collaboration between the school district and the University of Arkansas at Fort Smith, but owned by the district. It serves roughly 280 students from 22 school districts across Crawford, Franklin, Johnson, Logan, Scott and Sebastian counties through the university’s Western Arkansas Technical Center program.
The center houses courses for automation and robotics, computer integrated machining, electronics technology and industrial maintenance, emergency medical responders, medical office assistants, network engineering and unmanned aerial systems.
Oliva said the increase in teacher salaries can also help the state attract and retain quality educators to help with the initiatives.
Another attendee asked where the money for salaries is going to come from and how this will impact smaller school districts.
Oliva said the state Legislature was asked to increase school funding by taking planned 2% raises from other state programs that have a surplus in reserve, therefore not impacting other programs while also not increasing taxes.
“I think when you talk about small and rural districts, I think this is the greatest investment for small and rural districts,” Oliva said. “A lot of times small and rural districts struggle because when I talk about talent acquisition, for many of them their starting teacher salary was at the state minimum, around $36,000 a year.” Oliva said the state is also looking into programs in which high school students can start learning how to become teachers, and then if they commit to teaching within their community they can get their tuition paid for at their local state university and be debt-free upon graduation.