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Arkansas Education Secretary discusses school choice, literacy and Lake View

Arkansas Education Secretary Jacob Oliva speaks on KARK's Capitol View program on Sunday, Feb. 12, 2023.
Talk Business & Politics
Arkansas Education Secretary Jacob Oliva speaks on KARK's Capitol View program on Sunday, Feb. 12, 2023.

Arkansas’ new Secretary of Education Jacob Oliva offered new details and explained that some are still pending with regards to Gov. Sarah Sanders’ omnibus education plan called LEARNS.

“I think it’s important to note that this entire comprehensive package is really about improving learning and access for learning for all students. And I’m a product of public schools, I worked in public schools, I believe public schools should be the first and best choice for families and students. But the reality is a one-size-fits-all approach to public education may not meet the needs of all students and families,” Oliva said in an interview on this week’s Capitol View TV program.

“What this program does is it creates opportunities for families and students to find alternative methods to the traditional public school. Some families may choose virtual schools, some families may choose home school. Some families may do dual enrollment or choice opportunities within the school district. But this ‘freedom fund’ is about providing dollars to families and resources to families if they want to choose primarily private education,” he added.

Sanders rolled out new details of her LEARNS education plan on Wednesday (Feb. 8), but the actual draft legislation of her expected omnibus education bill is still pending. Some specifics of her proposal include:

  • A minimum starting teacher salary of $50,000. That will take Arkansas from the bottom 10 to the top 5 in the country.
  • Pay raises to $50,000 for those teachers making less than that amount.
  • The potential for $10,000 bonuses for teachers who excel.
  • Forgiveness for student loan debt for teachers who locate in high-need areas of Arkansas.
  • A repeal of the Teacher Fair Dismissal Act.
  • 120 literacy coaches who would be deployed across Arkansas to help kids improve their reading success.
  • K-3 students struggling with reading would also be afforded $500 per year for supplemental education services.
  • Her voucher system for allowing public school funds to follow students to other choices would be called “education freedom accounts.”
  • The school choice plan will be phased in over three years starting with “at-risk families first” and would be universal to all students in Arkansas by Year 3.

“Education freedom accounts” will be the vehicle to allow public school money to follow students to other public schools, charter schools, private and parochial schools, or home school options. He expects Year 1’s phase-in to occur by the 2023-24 school year. Oliva said there are still decisions to make on how this will work, although he believes there will be some direct transfer of money from the state to school entities.

“Those details I think are still being ironed out as we work with the legislature, but kind of the overall concept is that students would be able to enroll in a private school that participates in this program,” he said. “It’s important to note that this isn’t being forced on families, this isn’t being forced on private schools. There’s going to be conditions that have to be met and criteria to make sure that if parents are choosing this opportunity, that their children are going to be educated appropriately. But the spirit of this would be when a private school signs up to participate in this program and is vetted that they would receive direct payments from the state for that to happen.”

Those conditions Oliva suggests could be outlined in the forthcoming legislation, but some of it may be hammered out in rules and regulations.

Reading literacy is a big component of Sanders’ reform package. Anywhere from 30-35% of Arkansas’ 3rd grade students can read at a “proficient” level, according to standardized tests that track reading ability. That puts Arkansas in the bottom 10 of U.S. states; however, the top states only have reading at a “proficient” level in the low to mid 40% range.

Oliva thinks the new resources being championed to improve reading will move those scores significantly higher. Sanders’ talking points related to reading literacy say that any child not reading proficiently by the end of 3rd grade “shall not be promoted to 4th grade.” Does this mean that nearly two-thirds of Arkansas’ third graders might be held back?

” I want to clarify the goal is not to retain everybody in third grade. And there are students that we know need additional layers of support. The goal is to make sure by third grade we’ve identified what those supports are and the student is able to have access to those supports,” Oliva said. “So if a child’s been retained previously, they’re not going to be retained again. If a child has special needs, those are determinations that get made through an individualized education planning process. We know students are going to move to fourth grade with some holes. This ensures when that student is in fourth grade that the teachers and their resources available to the teachers to teach the evidence-based strategies to improve learning and get those students at grade level are there and in place.”

Other comments from Oliva’s interview centered on a number of controversial topics:

Indoctrination/Critical Race Theory – “I think it’s important to note that some of this language is preventative in nature. And when you’re talking about topics that may be sensitive to some people, whether it’s training for adults or coursework for students, we need to make sure that those controversial topics are taught in a fair and unbiased manner where students are able to look at different points of view that they’re able to debate to be able to critically think. We should be teaching students how to think, not what to think. And if an educator is using an opportunity to open the door to indoctrinate students in their personal beliefs and biases, that’s not the role of an educator. It’s about making sure we have a fair and balanced approach and that we teach historical facts accurate and that we’re developing our students to become critical thinkers.”

Teacher Fair Dismissal Act – “I’ve been very fortunate in a few short weeks to visit schools all across the state, to meet with superintendents, to meet with principals, to hear from teachers talk to parents and students, and hear about ways or things that we can improve. The research is very clear. There is no greater impact to student outcome in learning than the teacher standing in front of the students each and every single day. So the more we can invest, the more we can coach, the more we can develop educators is going to continue to be a priority. But if we have a bad actor or a teacher that’s not doing their job, they’re hurting kids, and this is about protecting the rights to students learn and not about adults’ feelings, and we’re going to take immediate action and settle schools to be able to do that.”

Lake View decision – “I think anytime you’re looking at implementing bold vision, bold policy, you have to know where you’ve come from as a state. You have to know what are some of those foundational decisions that have been made decades ago, whether they were in the courts, whether they were in just how we’re going to design and support an infrastructure. This is about building on those systems and making sure that we keep the high-quality programs that we have there… I think when you’re looking at a vision like this, you can’t not consider the history of something that historic to this state, but you have to make sure that as you’re going forward in looking at new opportunities, those decisions that have been made through court systems in the past have to be a part of that conversation.”

You can watch Oliva’s full interview in the video below.

Roby Brock is the Editor-in-Chief and Host of Talk Business & Politics.