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Legislative Updates — May 22, 2020

LITTLE ROCK – In June the Senate Education Committee will hear a report on the effect that public schools have seen due to the recent widespread requests for waivers from education standards.

Almost every school district in Arkansas operates with some sort of waiver granted by the state. More than 1,000 public schools, in which 97 percent of the state’s students are enrolled, operate with some sort of waiver. They are in 229 of the 235 school districts in Arkansas.

The most common waiver allows districts flexibility in scheduling the opening day of the school year in August. In fact, all 229 districts with waivers have the waiver that allows flexible scheduling, which enables them to better align their first semester with winter break.

When legislators and consultants study the impact of waivers on public school standards, they will not include a study of flexible scheduling. It is so widespread that comparisons are impossible.

When you remove flexible scheduling waivers from the picture, in the current school year Arkansas has about 500 schools in 118 districts operating under a waiver of education standards.

The most common waivers release schools from state mandates regarding the licensing of teachers and library media specialists. Other common waivers allow schools flexibility in the area of teacher salaries, curriculum, and class sizes. Also popular are waivers from state requirements setting the number of hours a student must complete in order to receive credit for taking a class.

The increase in the number of schools seeking waivers from education standards is directly related to the inception of charter schools in Arkansas.

In the 1990s, the legislature approved the creation of charter schools. So-called conversion charters, created by legislation in 1995, are operated by traditional school districts. Open-enrollment charter schools were created in 1999 and are run by non-profit organizations and universities.

When the state Board of Education approves their charters, they are granted certain waivers from statewide education standards. At the same time, however, charters are expected to use innovative strategies that improve educational opportunities, and many charters teach students who do not do well in traditional school settings.

Two recent laws have spurred the explosion in waivers sought by traditional public schools. Act 1240 of 2015 allowed a district to request waivers that are held by charters within that district’s borders. Act 815 of 2019 expanded that provision to allow public schools to seek any waivers that have been granted to any charter in Arkansas.

The Senate Education Committee analysis basically will focus on two areas. One area is the impact, if any, that waivers have made on student performance. The other area is the financial effect waivers have made on districts that claim them.

Historically, state aid to school districts has been distributed without regard for any waivers that districts hold. That has been the case even though some waivers release schools from requirements that cost money and for which the state provides funding, such as limits on class sizes and requirements to offer a library media program.

The Senate Education Committee is studying data on waivers compiled by legislative staff and by a private consulting firm.

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