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State student plan gets more queries; process with U.S. called ‘fast, furious’

The Arkansas Board of Education wrapped up two days of meetings Friday during which members acted on the renewal of seven charter schools and approved waivers on the school start date for the Little Rock and Pulaski County Special districts.

The meeting took place as the Arkansas and U.S. Departments of Education were, behind the scenes, tossing back and forth the state's proposed plan for complying with the federal Every Student Succeeds Act of 2015.

The federal act sets the parameters on how states are to hold their school districts and schools responsible for student learning.

The proposed Arkansas plan for complying with the act sets the stage for much of the work of the state Education Department and state Education Board in the coming months, Education Commissioner Johnny Key and members of his staff told the Education Board.

That includes working with the governor's office to develop and put into place all of the rules for the state's own school and district accountability system, including revisions to the state's A-through-F system of grading schools.

Key said it is critical that draft rules for the state accountability systems align with the state's final Every Student Succeeds Act plan before the rules are forwarded to the governor for his review.

The state agency last September submitted its proposal that describes how it will support school districts and schools in attaining achievement goals -- 80 percent of all students scoring at "ready" or "exceeding ready" levels on state-required math and literacy exams -- within 12 years. The multifaceted plan also includes provisions regarding graduation goals, homeless students and acquisition of English skills by non-native English language learners.

The federal agency asked for clarifications and plan revisions at the end of December. The state sent those changes in by Monday's deadline , prompting a late Wednesday afternoon phone call from the U.S. department for more information. That response was submitted to Washington, D.C., on Thursday afternoon by state officials. Washington turned around with more questions Friday.

"There is no timeline, but we are hoping to hear something back from them by sometime next week," said Key, who called the events of the past few days "fast and furious."

"We think we have addressed everything that they have asked us to address," he said, adding that the department is attempting to post updates to the proposed plan on its website: arkansased.gov.

Education Board member Ouida Newton of Poyen served as the Education Board's member on a stakeholder advisory committee for the development of the state plan.

"I thought the overall reception of the plan by the U.S. department was very good," Newton said Friday. "They didn't want major changes, just more information," Newton said. "I don't know if you were, but I was very pleased with the response."

"The process that we used, taking their feedback, did make it better," Key told Newton. "The final product is better than it was in September. That's the way the process should work. We are happy with it."

CHARTER RENEWALS

Earlier in the meeting, the Education Board unanimously approved the renewal of state-issued charters that will permit seven charter schools to continue to operate for another three to 10 years.

The renewal applications were initially approved by the state's Charter Authorizing Panel in December. The state Education Board has the authority to accept the panel's decision on a school or conduct its own review of an application. The Education Board in each case Thursday chose not to review the panel's actions.

The newly approved charters for district-operated conversion charter schools and the renewal periods are: Blytheville High-New Tech High for as many as 1,000 students in the Blytheville School District, three years; Miner Academy for up to 200 students in the Bauxite School District, five years; Rogers New Technology High for up to 900 students in the Rogers School District, five years; and Washington Academy for up to 160 students in the Texarkana School District, five years.

Also receiving approval are the following independently operated open-enrollment charter schools: Arkansas Arts Academy for up to 1,225 students in Rogers for 10 years; Premier High School for as many as 240 students in Little Rock, five years; Northwest Classical Academy in Bentonville, 10 years.

Approval of the Northwest Classical Academy's request to increase its student enrollment cap from 685 to 1,200 was included in the approval.

Alexandra Boyd, the Education Department's charter-school program coordinator, told the Education Board that she anticipates that all charter schools, including those with newly renewed charter schools, will have to seek state-approved amendments to their achievement goals to align with requirements in the state's plan for complying with the Every Student Succeeds Act. Long-term achievement goals are a component of each charter or contract for school operation.

SCHOOL START

The Little Rock and Pulaski County Special school districts on Thursday received waivers from the Education Board that will enable the two districts to begin classes Aug. 13, which is earlier than allowed by state law.

Arkansas Code Annotated 6-10-106 sets the first day of school for the Monday in the week that contains Aug. 19. In the coming 2018-19 school year, that would make the earliest first day of school Aug. 20.

The two districts join most other districts in the state in receiving an Act 1240 of 2015 waiver of the school start date. Act 1240 enables conventional school districts to seek and attain waivers of state laws and rules already granted to open-enrollment charter schools that enroll at least one student from the conventional district.

The Little Rock district waiver is for one year. The Pulaski County Special District requested and was approved for five years.

Kane Webb, director of the Arkansas Department of Parks and Tourism, told the Education Board that there are concerns from the private businesses, including the hospitality and tourism industry, "about the early creep of the school start. It has slowly eroded their summers," Webb said.

"August used to be one of the best months of the summer for these small operators from an economic standpoint. Now it has practically disappeared," he said, noting that extracurricular activities start even earlier than the first day of classes..

The businesses not only lose customers but also their part-time student help, he said. He cited figures from Arkansas Hospitality Association studies indicating an approximate $200 million loss annually in travel expenditures and a $10 million loss annually in state tax revenue because of fewer family vacations in August and early September.

Representatives of the Little Rock and Pulaski County Special districts said the Aug. 13 date will permit more days of instruction before state-mandated testing in the spring and avoids school days in June, which are not well attended.

Metro on 01/13/2018

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