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Student gap no narrower, legislators told

Years on, nothing to show for $1 billion, analysis finds by Brian Fanney | September 16, 2015 at 4:56 a.m.

After reviewing data on the academic achievement gap in Arkansas schools and analyzing the $210 million in annual spending to fix the problem, lawmakers Tuesday said they could not find evidence that state and local interventions are achieving measurable results.

"There's a conclusion to be reached about the data presented in the charts," said Rep. John Walker, D-Little Rock. "The state has not addressed remediating the poverty gap ... after all these years and all this money."

Walker asked Nell Smith, administrator of the policy analysis and research section of the Bureau of Legislative Research, if that was a fair assessment.

"I think that's a fair conclusion," she said.

The exchange occurred at a wide-ranging joint education committee meeting Tuesday.

Legislators met to discuss the state's status under No Child Left Behind, review a software program meant to streamline school reporting requirements and discuss supplemental state funding for poor students.

Much of the discussion centered on the funding program that was put in place to comply with the Arkansas Supreme Court's 2002 Lake View decision.

The court found that the state's public education system was inadequate and unconstitutional because it did not provide an equal education to all Arkansas students. To help fix the problem, it required the state to close the funding gap between rich and poor districts.

Under a model approved by the Arkansas Legislature in the 2003-04 special session, schools receive a set amount of funding for every student who qualifies for free or reduced-price lunch.

The level of per-student funding varies by the concentration of poverty. If 65 percent of students at a school qualify for free or reduced-price lunch, the school receives about $520 from the state for each of those students. If 95 percent of students qualify, the school receives $1,560 for each of those students. Since 2008, the total funding has topped $1 billion.

In 2004, the Legislature approved funding for 11 programs and directed the Arkansas Department of Education to develop a more complete list.

Now, schools have the option to spend money on 28 different programs. The department added eight and lawmakers approved nine more.

Approved programs range from tutoring and social workers to summer programs and professional development for teachers and staff.

"It's grown over the years for so many reasons, and now it's so disparate we don't have any way of even evaluating it," said Sen. Joyce Elliott, D-Little Rock.

Lawmakers wanted data showing which programs are most effective and which are a waste of money. But legislators said they didn't find a correlation between student achievement and how a district spends its share of the $210 million.

Sen. Alan Clark, R-Lonsdale, argued that if the money improved outcomes, data would show some programs working better than others.

He said data need to dictate spending, which has grown by $50 million since the 2008-09 school year.

About 61 percent of students in Arkansas schools now qualify for free or reduced lunch. That number has grown from 56 percent in the 2008-09 school year.

"This achievement gap must be taken very seriously," Clark said. "We have to move other bureaucracy and even local control out of the way -- and I know we all support local control -- but we need to do something about this achievement gap."

Though he wasn't listed on the agenda to present information, Johnny Key, d̶i̶r̶e̶c̶t̶o̶r̶ ̶o̶f̶ ̶t̶h̶e̶ ̶A̶r̶k̶a̶n̶s̶a̶s̶ ̶D̶e̶p̶a̶r̶t̶m̶e̶n̶t̶ ̶o̶f̶ ̶E̶d̶u̶c̶a̶t̶i̶o̶n Arkansas education commissioner*, told lawmakers that balancing state and local control is delicate.

"In reading Lake View -- it covers a lot of things -- one thing it's pretty clear on is that in the absence of local school boards, local administration, local control getting the job done, then the state is compelled to act," he said. "When a court says you are compelled, the court means it is your obligation."

On the other hand, Key said his department has little input into how local districts spend the state money.

"We're not a heavy hand in that," he said. "We are a guiding hand, but the ability for us to be prescriptive on what they must do is more limited than some might think."

During the meeting, lawmakers also questioned the qualifications of school improvement specialists.

Lawmakers were told that local districts decide who to hire for the positions and that the state doesn't have minimum requirements for the positions.

"It is a local decision," said Richard Wilde, program manager for school improvement at the Arkansas Department of Education.

"At the same time, we are working to develop a training program."

He said the state has issued qualification guidelines.

Legislators were also concerned about the Arkansas Comprehensive School Improvement Plan, an Internet-based system designed in 2004 to assist districts with state and federal reporting requirements.

Clark said some school officials felt that using the software was redundant.

Key said the Department of Education is replacing the old software with a new system that will provide school improvement data to staff members while satisfying reporting requirements.

"[We're] trying to get back on the path we started on -- a school improvement plan," Key said. "It had morphed from a planning document ... to a compliance document."

Metro on 09/16/2015

*CORRECTION: Johnny Key is the Arkansas education commissioner. Key's title was misidentified in a story in Wednesday's edition about education funding and student achievement.

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