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Sanders, Oliva to board: Plenty of work ahead

Education planners starting on rules for LEARNS Act by Cynthia Howell | March 10, 2023 at 5:12 a.m.
Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders' speaks at her signing of the Arkansas LEARNS Act at the state Capitol on Wednesday, March 8, 2023. On her right is state Secretary of the Department of Education Jacob Oliva, who also spoke at the signing. (Arkansas Democrat-Gazette/Stephen Swofford)

The day after the Arkansas LEARNS Act to revamp public education was signed into law, Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders and Education Secretary Jacob Oliva talked to the state Board of Education on Thursday about the next steps to bring the provisions of the law to fruition.

Sanders told the board that she is really proud of the multipart legislation that she said was the culmination of several years of talking to teachers, students, parents and lawmakers.

The new law championed by the governor includes raising beginning teacher salaries from $36,000 to $50,000, offering other teacher pay incentives, eliminating teacher and support staff job protections, creating a voucher system that would give families access to public funding for home school costs or private school tuition, creating a dual diploma system to prepare students for the workforce, funding for 120 reading coaches, and providing $500 grants for tutors for academically struggling kindergarten-through-third graders.

LEARNS stands for literacy, empowerment, accountability, readiness, networking and safety.

"I feel we have something really special that is going to change the future for students in Arkansas," Sanders said. "I think it is something we can be proud of.

"It's not a perfect piece of legislation," she continued about the 145-page act, "because no piece of legislation is ever perfect, which is why this state board has its work cut out for them. They are going to be in charge of helping on the rules and the implementation. I have no doubt that the work they do will be helpful to Arkansas students."

All parties ultimately want the same thing -- the success of students, she said.

Oliva told the board that the Division of Elementary and Secondary Education staff are in the process of identifying themes within the Arkansas LEARNS Act and forming work groups around those themes in an effort to develop rules for carrying out the law in a fair and consistent manner. Teaching and learning might be the focus of one group, early learning the focus of another, and career and technical education might be a third, he said of what he anticipates will be about a half-dozen groups.

Oliva said the process of developing the rules -- which must ultimately be approved by the Arkansas Board of Education and reviewed by the governor's office -- will be "clear and transparent."

To that end, he said, the state agency intends to invite statewide, representative participation in those groups for drafting necessary rules and regulations.

He had said last month that he anticipates the development of an information dashboard to keep the board and public up to date on the new work.

Kimberly Mundell, a spokeswoman for the Elementary and Secondary Education Division, said later Thursday that the specific work groups and the application process for membership will be released in the next week or two via communications from the agency in the form of a commissioner's memo, as well as in social media.

Oliva also told the Education Board that it is important not to lose sight on the agency's ongoing work, which he said will be enhanced by the LEARNS Act and new resources.

That includes new English/language arts and math standards for kindergarten through 12th grades on which curriculum will be based. He called the standards and curriculum the walls on which the roof -- assessment -- will stand.

The state is moving to a new end-of-year assessment company starting with the 2023-24 school year.

Revised standards will be put out for public review and feedback, he said.

Oliva proposed that the Education Board and agency staff use time in April for a board workshop to discuss draft standards and the provisions of the LEARNS Act, much of which is to be initiated in the coming 2023-24 school year

Ouida Newton, of Leola, chairman of the Education Board and a former Arkansas Teacher of the Year, told Oliva that she seess a lot of changes coming and "we are willing as a board to work alongside and do whatever we need to do."

Oliva, who was a veteran Florida educator before he was selected by Sanders for her Cabinet, said he is very appreciative of the welcome he has received and the commitment and passion he has seen at the state agency.

"This is a real top-notch team," he said. "I'm really honored to serve alongside with them."

Print Headline: Sanders, Oliva to board: Plenty of work ahead


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