The Arkansas General Assembly recently concluded the legislative session. As is always the case, the legislative session had a profound impact on the future of public education. While there isn’t enough space in one column to offer a comprehensive review of all legislation that will affect how we do our work to provide our community’s students with a top-notch public educational opportunity, there are some items that I think are noteworthy to bring to your attention this week.
First, there were some pieces of legislation where our district was positively recognized for its leadership. I had the opportunity to represent our board and our school district at the bill signing of HB 1621, which will move the election of all school board members to either May or November and end the practice of September elections for school board members beginning in 2018. Our district led on this issue by being the first district in the state to voluntarily embrace school board elections in November which results in a greater amount of community engagement in the selection of those that will govern the school district and set the course for its future. Our experience was cited by Senator Jane English during debate on the bill on the floor of the Senate and was mentioned by Governor Asa Hutchinson at the signing of the bill. I took great pride in our district being cited as a positive leader in setting good policy for public education in the state, just as we did two years ago as a leader for the passage of ACT 1240 of 2015 which has enabled us to receive national praise for showing leadership in increasing flexibility for public schools to have many of the same rules as charter schools in their areas cited for high achievement. The Helena-West Helena School District is gaining a reputation for embracing the needed change to make public education a beacon that generates confidence from our community and the state.
Second, there are some pieces of legislation that will immediate force us to consider changes in how we operate our schools. One such bill was SB 609, which the Governor has signed into law. This new statute effectively prohibits the out of school suspension of a student below the 6th grade level unless that student poses a physical threat to himself/herself or others. We will being reviewing our elementary handbook discipline policies with the appropriate committees next week to evaluate how best to respond to this new law. The goal is laudable. We should always do everything we can to keep kids in school and make sure they learn. But we also have a responsibility to balance that against the needs of the many who occasionally have their education disrupted by a few. I look forward to working with the handbook committee, the administration and the board to develop an appropriate response.
Third, at least one piece of legislation could help us to attract more highly qualified teachers to our district. This is Senate Bill 555, which substantially increases the amount paid to a teacher working in a high poverty district who obtains National Board Certification. Obviously, our district would be one of the qualifying districts. Teachers who obtain National Board Certification who are on our staff now or who are hired and obtain it later will receive $10000 per year for up to 10 years from the state and an additional $2,500 per year for up to 10 years from the district. That’s a potential increase of $125,000 for working in a district like ours over a decade. This isn’t a silver bullet but it does provide incentives for our current staff to get the additional training needed to reach that level of qualification and another incentive for us to use in the recruitment of highly motivated teachers either out of school, from other districts, or from private employers.
Fourth, there is one piece of legislation that will have a direct impact on students. HB 1539 will require students to pass the Civics portion of the exam used by the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services before he or she can receive a high school diploma. Students can take it multiple times, but this is an additional test that is now required and the only one that can prevent a student from receiving his or her diploma for failure to perform at a minimum level.
In closing, this is just a very small amount of the legislation that affects public education. In the future, I will devote some space to the new accountability system being developed by the state to take the place of the current Academic Distress Law. The rules still have to be written by the Arkansas Department of Education for implementation in 2019. In the meantime, we remain subject to the current Academic Distress rules and hope to emerge from that oversight in the near future with test score improvements on the ACT Aspire tests that many of our students are taking this week.
Great things continue to happen in Helena-West Helena School District every day. It’s an honor to serve. The School Board will be working with Mr. Hoy to comply with all of the new rules, update our policies accordingly, and continue to improve our programs. It’s a great time to be inHelena-West Helena School District! Enroll in one of our schools for next year now.
Until next time GO COUGARS!