Monday, January 12, 2015

TOP STORY >> Common Core right for state?

Leader staff writer

As state lawmakers convene for the regular session of the 90th Legislative General Assembly on Monday, The Leader interviewed local school leaders and legislators about key issues affecting education.

The newly implemented Common Core state standards, which provide schools with more universal curriculum requirements in English, literacy, history, social studies, science and math, tops the list of concerns for area superintendents.

However politically charged and frequently misunderstood the issue is, school leaders say they stand behind Common Core and insist it needs time to start showing results, while Republican legislators in the area are afraid of the federal government having too much control over local schools.

Cabot School Superintendent Tony Thurman said the standards are rigorous and can be modified if problems arise. For a military community like Cabot, students who move there or away to other bases around the country will be able to pick up with the same lessons at their new schools.

It will help students avoid starting over with new standards and coursework by repeating or even skipping over lessons.

Lonoke Superintendent Suzanne Bailey said, “The concept is advantageous for promoting deeper student learning. It will take time and energy to implement the necessary strategies required for higher-level learning and student engagement into critical thinking tasks, and closes the gaps that exist due to the shifting of standards.”

State Senate Education Committee member Eddie Joe Williams (R-Cabot) said he has been in discussions with several school superintendents. He sent a report to Gov. Asa Hutchinson that provides feedback about Common Core and considers making fundamental changes to Common Core.

“It will get a lot of attention in the legislative session,” Williams said.

Common Core has received backlash from some parents and even became a campaign issue in the November election.

Beebe School Superintendent Belinda Shook said, “Common Core has become the catchall for anything someone doesn’t like about public schools. We ought to give it time to work before we change it.”

But Tim Lemons, an engineer who is starting his first term as a Republican state representative for the Cabot area, said, “I cannot support Common Core until I have some assurance that it will curtail federal involvement with our local school districts. I can see where some national standards are not a bad thing. However, if we give up local control of our school districts, I have a real problem with that because schools are the identity of their community. If they lost that, I could see where that would be detrimental.”

But Lemons also said he does not have a problem adopting the academic standards.

Shook said much of the challenge in implementing Common Core is preparing for the new standardized test that will replace the Benchmark test. The PARCC, which stands for Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers, will be the new measure of academic performance for students across the country.

PARCC testing will begin this spring. Students will take the test simultaneously, using laptop computers on the schools’ wireless network. The test will not be given on the Internet, which will ensure that students’ privacy is protected. Some parents have worried their children’s personal information could be exposed.

To administer the test, schools had to buy hundreds of new computers.

“We’ve invested a lot in Chromebooks and made sure we’ve had enough for the testing,” Shook said.

She anticipates some technology problems. Shook said students have taken practice tests to see how the school’s computer network will handle the load.

Lonoke’s superintendent is confident her district can adapt to the new test.

“We, at Lonoke, feel as prepared as we can be at this point in time with preparing to take the PARCC online assessment in the spring with our technology infrastructure,” Bailey said.

“Many hours have gone into planning, scheduling and piloting for this upcoming student assessment. Our students are preparing throughout the school year to be ready to use the technology required. We are hoping that this will all work successfully, and there will be no glitches on our end or with the testing company,” she continued.

Shook said, “Requiring schools to do all this so quickly has been pretty hard. Some school districts aren’t going to be able to do the tests online and will use paper and pencil.”

The Beebe superintendent did not mince words about the politicization of the standardized tests.

“Why are people complaining about Common Core and PARCC when legislators compare schools on a national level with NAEP?” she asked, referring to the National Assessment of Educational Progress exam that is given to randomly selected schools. The results are then used to compare states, not school districts.

“Taking the PARCC test makes more sense than the NAEP test. We just started Common Core a few years ago. We haven’t given it time to test the standards. We don’t focus on the NAEP standards,” Shook said.

“We never get any results, except for the state’s results. When you see a report, for example, it compares Arkansas to Massachusetts. It does not show how a district compares to other districts in other states,” Shook said.

“We don’t know what they are testing or what the results are. I’ve tried to get Beebe’s (NAEP) scores, but they won’t give them. At least with Common Core and PARCC we know what the standards are, and we are taking the same tests.

“If we are going to have a national test, let us know what the standards and tests are we are going to use,” Shook said.

She said students in Arkansas have made more progress in the NAEP test than students in any other state.

“If the NAEP test is going to be the measure, then why don’t we use the NAEP standards?” Shook asked.


Superintendents are also concerned about talk of legislation to create state-funded scholarships and vouchers for children to attend private schools.

Sen. Williams said, “I’m a proponent for vouchers. I don’t see vouchers as a threat to good performing schools. If a school underperforms, parents should be able to get vouchers to better educate their kids. It is competitive and makes for better schools.”
But area superintendents couldn’t disagree more.

Cabot’s superintendent said, “I believe, if they are to take taxpayer money from public schools, that private schools should be held as equally accountable as public schools.”
Shook said, “I’m very anti-vouchers and scholarships for private schools. I’m not against private schools and people who want to send their kids there; I am against using public school money.

“I don’t want my tax money that I’m paying for public schools to go to a private school to pay for someone else’s child when they could send their child to a public school.”

Bailey also opposes giving tax dollars to private schools. “Public schools would be harmed if the funding available for public schools was reduced and given to private schools,” she said. 

Thurman and Bailey suggested that, if the state wants to begin funding private schools, the private schools would need to report student academic performance in the same way that public schools do.

The state also requires public schools, but not private schools, to provide special-needs programs, physical education, music and art, Thurman pointed out.

Shook said, “If they did start giving scholarships and voucher money to private schools, they should meet the same accountabilities systems as public schools and offer the same services.”


Thurman said public school administrators do not want legislators to make any changes with the funding matrix, which is the state’s equation that provides funding for school districts. He said the current system is working well and is fair and equitable.

Thurman said there is talk about “tweaking” the funding matrix.

“We believe that would be detrimental. We’d like for it to stay. We understand it. We know how it works. We know it is fair. It is in compliance with court rulings, with equal education for all,” Thurman said.

Shook agreed. “I’m happy with it and want them to leave it alone. New legislators look at the funding as an expenditure,” she said. 

Lemons, the freshman legislator, said, “There are some schools under the current program that are being disenfranchised to some degree and some that are probably overfunded. I could see where that might need some adjustment to be a little more fair. It is a work in progress. As the needs of the people change, it can be modified.”

Rep. Camille Bennett (D- Lonoke), another freshman legislator, said, “Everyone needs money.

“We have to figure out how to collectively meet the best needs of the people of our state. Education has to be our top priority. We don’t have an option. If we don’t invest in education, eventually it is going to get worse. Bad things happen. Drug abuse, people in jail and welfare all ties to not having a basic education. You can’t get a job. Most (pregnant) teens are reading at a fifth-grade level. Education changes people’s lives,” Bennett said.


Next on the superintendents’ list of concerns is securing state money for districts to build new schools and pay for remodeling projects. State money has helped build several new campuses in Cabot and others in Beebe, Lonoke and Sherwood.

The partnership is based on a district’s wealth index.

That is especially important for the new Jacksonville-North Pulaski School District, which is hoping to see a windfall of state money that was not available to it when the area was part of the Pulaski County Special School District.

Some of the money has been moved from the partnership-funding program to pay for teachers’ insurance, and there are concerns that much needed projects will not happen because of a lack of available money.

Thurman said, “We want the facility funding to remain intact and the funding that was removed put back. Districts can’t take on the sole responsibility for paying for new facilities.”
Shook said, “If Beebe has to build new buildings and doesn’t have state partnership funding, it will have to pass a millage, which would be difficult.

“I’ve been a superintendent for 10 years, and we have taken advantage of the state partnership facility funding,” she said.

State partnership funding has paid for 63 percent of the building and remodeling projects in the Beebe School District, Shook noted. It has helped pay for the new middle school, the Early Childhood building, the high school’s Career and Technical Building, additions at the junior high and high school and the remodeling of two elementary schools.


The superintendents also recommend legislators help their districts pay for the cost of providing thousands of free and reduced-price meals every day by renewing the National School Lunch Act, which provides state funds to districts based on the number of students receiving free meals.

Thurman said research shows children from homes that are struggling economically typically require nutritional assistance as well as remediation studies and more. That can be an expensive burden for districts.

The National School Lunch Act also provides districts with money for additional instructional programs, afterschool programs, nurses, interventionists, specialists, tutors and summer school. Districts could not provide those services to so many students without that funding.
Shook said, “It will kill a lot of our programs if that was taken away.”

Thurman said many other school leaders are asking legislators to maintain National School Lunch Act funding and continue to allow districts flexibility in how they use the money based on their needs.

Bailey said, “Flexibility should continue with this funding. More requirements and restrictions on how school districts spend the funds is not needed nor desired.”


Thurman believes the school choice cap of 3 percent for incoming and outgoing students transferring between school districts should remain the same. He said the cap helps districts maintain budgets based on enrollment numbers.

However, Bailey said, “The 3 percent cap should be reduced due to the financial burden it can cause districts with the loss of revenue.”

Senate Education Committee Chairman Jane English (R-North Little Rock) said, “Every parent ought to have a choice for the education for their child. Every parent needs to be able to make that decision on which school their child can go to.”

English said one school district may offer programs another does not or offer services for special needs students.

Shook said, “It’s not been a big problem for us.”

Beebe, Cabot and Lonoke school districts have all been working with each other on school choice.

Bennett said, “School choice is great as long as it doesn’t impact disadvantaged people.”
She is concerned that school choice could have a detrimental impact on smaller schools if they are  in danger of school closure. The Scott School District and the England School District are examples Bennett gave.

She does not want to see school choice as “white flight” or the selective pulling of better performing students out of one district for another. However, Bennett sees it as a plus that can work for larger districts.
(Next: Other education issues before the legislature.)