This is the first in a series of articles about the contents and effects of the Arkansas L.E.A.R.N.S. Act.
Novice governor Sarah Sanders signed the sweeping L.E.A.R.N.S. Act on March 8, 2023.
Few Arkansas residents, even those most closely affected by it, will have the time or patience to read the 145-page document. Yet, every tax-paying citizen, whether or not they have school age children, needs to know what is in it.
The Act was preceded by a proclamation that contains twelve “Whereas” statements to justify the need for it. This first article will examine these statements.
Justifications for the L.E.A.R.N.S. Act
(Literacy Empowerment Accountability Readiness Networking School Safety = L.E.A.R.N.S.)
Five of the whereases state what is desired for the children of Arkansas.
- a quality education, good-paying jobs, and a better life “right here in Arkansas”
- pre-school preparation, so that they have the foundation to learn to read in grades K-3.
- effective teachers
- affordable and reliable high-speed internet
- government protection as they attend school
Six of the whereases state what is presently undesirable about the educational landscape.
- only 35% of Arkansas third graders read at grade level
- 70% of incarcerated Arkansans cannot read at 4th grade level
- “too many Arkansas kids” lack access to high quality educational opportunities before kindergarten
- “many” students lack connections to high-speed, affordable and reliable internet
- 140,000 children attend public schools that have ESSA ratings of D or F
- Less than half of Arkansas’ workers have credentials beyond a high school diploma
Annotating the Whereases
The first group of statements demands little comment. Everyone can agree on the desirability of these goals.
The second group requires some clarification.
1. Fourth-grade reading: In 2022, the national percentage for fourth-graders reading at or above proficient was 32%. For Arkansas that year, it was 30%. NAEP statisticss
2. Prison reading level: According to the National Adult Literacy Survey, 70% of all incarcerated adults cannot read at a fourth-grade level, not just in Arkansas.
3. Pre-school preparation: Actually, Arkansas does better with pre-school opportunities than many other states. The Arkansas Better Chance (ABC) program presently enrolls 25,389 low-income three- and four-year-olds. So far, only four states have instituted universal pre-school for their three- and four-year-olds.
4. Online access: When the COVID-19 epidemic elevated the importance of online access for school children, the state spent more than $150 million to enable distance learning. Nevertheless, one in ten households with children have no internet connection.
5. D and F school ratings: It’s interesting that this whereas mentions children, rather than schools. In the 2021-22 school year, 32% of Arkansas public schools received D’s and F’s. In that same year, 37 of the state’s 86 charter schools (43%) received D’s and F’s.
By that measure, the regular public schools out-performed the over-hyped charter schools.
6 Workforce education: Of Arkansans 25 and older, 88% have high school diplomas; 34% have B.A.s or higher academic qualifications. So far, I cannot find any figures for those who have completed non-academic occupational training beyond high school.
The remaining whereas points to a 2021 RAND survey about teacher discontent. Following that survey, RAND found that “only about a third of teachers and a fifth of principals who indicated they wanted to leave the profession actually did so by the following school year.”
What about poverty?
Conspicuous by its absence is any mention of the ways in which childhood poverty affects school achievement.
Twenty-two percent of Arkansas children live in poverty. Children in poverty often lack home resources to study and may go to school hungry. And, because poverty is concentrated in poor towns and poor neighborhoods, poor children attend schools that lack resources. The poorer the district, the emptier the tax coffers.
One of the most important responsibilities of state governments is to fund and maintain a system of public schools that serves all the children of the state.
As long as public schools are funded by local taxes, some districts will be able to offer more in the way of curriculum and expensive teaching resources. However, every district can be expected to educate children to a level of adult literacy that includes a fund of general knowledge about the world they live in and their rights and duties as citizens.
Arkansas taxpayers need to familiarize themselves with what is in this new education bill. Then, they need to ask the question, “Do the changes it advocates serve the interests of every child in the state?”