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Arkansas coalition submits measure to amend state Constitution’s education clause

For AR Kids Vice President April Reisma spoke on Dec. 21, 2023, about the need for expanded special education resources during a press conference in the Old Supreme Court chamber in the Arkansas Capitol. For AR Kids has proposed a ballot initiative to standardize education programs and requirements for Arkansas that receive public funds.
John Sykes
/
Arkansas Advocate
For AR Kids Vice President April Reisma spoke on Dec. 21, 2023, about the need for expanded special education resources during a press conference in the Old Supreme Court chamber in the Arkansas Capitol. For AR Kids has proposed a ballot initiative to standardize education programs and requirements for Arkansas that receive public funds.

From the Arkansas Advocate:

A proposed constitutional amendment submitted to the Arkansas attorney general Thursday would require all schools receiving state funds to meet the same set of academic and accreditation standards.

The Educational Rights Amendment of 2024 also proposes that the state expand its obligation to maintain a “general, suitable, and efficient system of free public schools” to include universal access to pre-K and afterschool and summer programs, assistance to children who are within 200% of the federal poverty line and support services for students with disabilities’ individualized needs.

For AR Kids, a newly-formed ballot question committee, is backing the effort to place the measure on the 2024 ballot. The coalition includes the Arkansas Education Association, Arkansas Conference of the NAACP, Arkansas Public Policy Panel, Citizens First Congress and Citizens for Arkansas Public Education and Students (CAPES).

During a press conference at the Capitol Thursday, Arkansas Public Policy Panel Executive Director Bill Kopsky said this proposed measure is “how we move the state of Arkansas forward.”

“We have such a unique opportunity to invest in our children with the most effective strategies that will transform the future for our children and provide them with quality education that they deserve,” he said.

The proposed amendment also incorporates principles outlined in Lake View School District Nov. 25 v. Huckabee, a landmark case that led to the overhaul of public school funding with the goal of providing an adequate and equitable education for all Arkansas students.

Arkansas Education Association President April Reisma said the public education system has never been fully funded to provide the opportunities students need to grow and thrive.

“Our public schools have consistently been expected to rise to the occasion without the funds and resources to be able to do so,” Reisma said. “The staff of our public schools have bent over backwards to provide all they can with very limited assistance. The staff of our public schools in this state have been overworked and disrespected for far too long.”

The state’s education system became a major focus of this year’s legislative session with the passage of the LEARNS Act, the governor’s sweeping education overhaul law. The most controversial piece of the legislation was the creation of a voucher program that provides about $6,600 in state funds for allowable educational expenses, primarily private school tuition, this first year.

Nearly 5,000 students and 100 private schools were enrolled in the Educational Freedom Account program’s inaugural year, according to a September report. Of those in the program, nearly a third are first-time kindergarteners and less than 5% were previously enrolled in a public school.

Opponents of the EFA program have noted that private schools don’t have to follow the same rules as public schools, including admitting all students, providing transportation and administering certain standardized tests.

The LEARNS Act does require private schools to administer a nationally-recognized, annual norm-referenced exam approved by the Arkansas Department of Education, but only to students participating in the EFA program.

Despite criticism of the law, officials with national education policy organization ExcelinEd, a proponent of voucher programs, said a clear majority of the 800 parents and guardians surveyed in its new poll favor EFAs.

“The LEARNS Act creates transformative opportunities for Arkansas families, and these findings show parents’ positive views of the changes underway,” ExcelinEd CEO Patricia Levesque said. “Families struggling in their current school situations are especially supportive of EFAs and the possibility this funding could lead to better education opportunities for their children.”

According to the poll, which was conducted by Arkansas-based Impact Management Group, 32% of respondents said their opinion of EFAs was “very favorable” while nearly 29% said their opinion was “somewhat favorable.”

The poll, which has a margin of error of +/- 3.94%, was conducted between Aug. 24 and Sept. 8 as the EFA program was first being implemented. Ninety-eight percent of respondents were contacted by cell phone, 80% were white and 39% have an income exceeding $100,000.

Robert Coon, the Little Rock-based managing partner of Impact Management Group, acknowledged during a press conference last week that it’s challenging to collect responses from all the demographic groups you want to when conducting phone polling.

But Coon noted some of the poll’s responses are broken out by income levels. For example, the poll shows 62% of households making over $100,000 said it was “very easy” to find the type of school they want their child to go to compared to 48% of households earning between $26,000 and $50,000, and more than 53% of households earning less than $25,000. Nearly 57% of all respondents said it was “very easy.”

“If you had more respondents in that lower income range, certainly there would probably be an uptick in difficulty that the overall population is facing because, quite frankly, they’re the ones that are not able to currently afford a private school tuition or maybe can’t afford to put their kids in a school that is public, but it’s a charter school and it doesn’t provide transportation,” Coon said.

CAPES Executive Director Steve Grappe told the Advocate Wednesday that For AR Kids used feedback from attorneys, focus groups and polling to draft its proposed ballot measure.

According to a study Arkansas Public Policy Panel commissioned Blueprint Polling to conduct in March, nearly 58% of Arkansans surveyed “strongly agree” with equal standards for all schools that receive tax dollars, while 19% “somewhat agree.”

Support for equal standards was consistent across political party affiliation. The poll, which recorded questions from 500 Arkansas voters, has a margin of error of +/- 4.2 points.

Arkansas Public Policy Panel commissioned a second study that Blueprint Polling conducted in November. This report found that 51% of respondents said they were “very likely” to support the entire constitutional amendment proposal while 26% said they were “somewhat likely.” The poll surveyed 510 Arkansas voters and has a margin of error of +/- 4.3 points.

“The people of Arkansas are ready for something better,” Grappe said Thursday. “We are ready to stand up as citizens and say we’re going to take this on ourselves. We’re going to take the power into our own hands and we’re going to change the education system for the better for our kids.”

Attorney General Tim Griffin has until Jan. 9 to approve or reject the proposed ballot language. If it’s approved, For AR Kids must collect 90,704 signatures from at least 50 counties to qualify the measure for the 2024 ballot.

Antoinette Grajeda is a multimedia journalist who has reported since 2007 on a wide range of topics, including politics, health, education, immigration and the arts for NPR affiliates, print publications and digital platforms. A University of Arkansas alumna, she earned a bachelor’s degree in print journalism and a master’s degree in documentary film.