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Deadline approaching for public input on Arkansas ‘transformation contract’ rule

Little Rock attorney Ali Noland, at lectern, tells Arkansas Board of Education members on May 5, 2023, that they do not have the authority to grant the Marvell-Elaine School District permission to enter into a transformation contract with the Friendship Education Foundation.
John Sykes
Arkansas Advocate
Little Rock attorney Ali Noland, at lectern, tells Arkansas Board of Education members on May 5, 2023, that they do not have the authority to grant the Marvell-Elaine School District permission to enter into a transformation contract with the Friendship Education Foundation.

From the Arkansas Advocate:

Wednesday is the final day to submit public comments on rules governing transformation contracts between struggling Arkansas school districts and a third party, like a charter management organization.

The LEARNS Act, a 2023 law that made sweeping changes to Arkansas’ education system, allows a public school with a “D” or “F”-rating or one classified as in need of Level 5 – Intensive Support to partner with an open-enrollment public charter school or another state-approved entity to create a “transformation campus.”

The draft rule defines a transformation campus as a public school or district that’s led by a transformation campus operator with the intent to return management to a traditional public school or district “after accelerated, meaningful, and sustainable increases in student achievement have been achieved.”

The Marvell-Elaine School District last year entered into the state’s first transformation contract with Friendship Education Foundation, a charter management organization based in Washington, D.C., that operates charter schools around the country, including seven in Arkansas, according to state data.

When the Arkansas Board of Education assumed authority of Marvell-Elaine last July, the eastern Arkansas district had a Level 5 classification and both of its schools had an “F”-rating. The district had previously been in fiscal distress from April 2019 to September 2021.

Under the transformation contract, Friendship manages day-to-day operations, but Marvell-Elaine remains a public school district and maintains core pieces of its identity like the school mascot and colors.

According to the draft rule, districts that enter into a transformation contract would also maintain ownership of facilities, buildings and land that belonged to the district prior to the contract.

Marvell-Elaine superintendent Phong Tran said the state has been a great partner and provided assistance when needed. Tran said the community has also been supportive as Friendship has focused on educating students and reintroducing events that generate parental engagement.

The initial term of Marvell-Elaine’s transformation contract with Friendship runs from Aug. 1, 2023, to June 30, 2026. Under the contract, Friendship has “full oversight, management and operation” of the district during the initial term, and the contract can be extended.

Likewise, the contract can be terminated prior to its expiration date. The district is scheduled to pay $650,012, including an $83,334 initial payment, to Friendship during the first three years of the contract.

Friendship is no stranger to taking the reins at struggling schools. In Arkansas, Friendship has taken over campuses that belonged to Covenant Keepers College Preparatory Charter School, Southeast Arkansas Preparatory High School and Arkansas Lighthouse Charter Schools.

Based on those experiences, Tran said it can take three to five years to transform a school.

“It always takes time, I mean just coming into a school and expecting a miracle doesn’t always happen like that,” he said. “You need to come in, see where the school is at, see where kids [are] at, see where the community’s at and then work your plan there.”

When the state board approved the draft rules for public comment in April, Arkansas Department of Education Deputy Commissioner Stacy Smith told board members that Marvell-Elaine’s contract falls under the proposed rules.

“We’ve operated under what the law has allowed us to operate,” Smith said. “These rules are now giving us more clarity as we move forward with future transformation contracts.”

The draft rules would require the transformation campus operator during the first two years of the contract to provide quarterly reports that include information to allow the monitoring of “academic performance and educational efficiency.”

During this two-year period, the school will receive an alternate letter grade and the state education board wouldn’t take additional action for failure to satisfy academic performance standards.

Smith said the rules provide an alternate accountability period so districts can try different things without being penalized by the state’s accountability system.

“This is like a shot in the arm,” she said. “We’re doing something drastic and major to get this going because we’re failing kids and we’ve got to do something drastic.”

Under the draft rules, a transformation contract for a school or district under state authority (like Marvell-Elaine) cannot extend beyond the time the district is under state authority.

State education officials would review annually the required reports, and if they determine sufficient growth hasn’t been made, the education commissioner can immediately terminate the contract and request the state board to consider other options available for a district under state authority.

The rules also permit a district that’s not under state authority to enter into a transformation contract; however, it will become void if the state board assumes authority during the term of the contract.

To be eligible to participate in a transformation contract, the draft rule would require charter organizations like Friendship to maintain at least a “C” rating at all of its public charter schools for the three previous school years, and to have no significant findings on the prior year’s annual financial audit.

The rule would also prohibit organizations from participating if they have operated a school with a charter that was revoked, surrendered or expired.

Additionally, the draft rule would require that the contract identify annual goals, milestones and performance targets, and include a provision by which it can be terminated if the contract leads to worse student outcomes than prior to the contract.

Feedback collected during the 30-day comment period, as well as from a public hearing in April, may be used to craft the final version of the rule, which must receive final approval from the state education board and a legislative committee.

Public comments on the draft rule can be emailed to ADE.RulesComments@ade.arkansas.gov.

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.