Tuesday, September 8, 2015

ForwARd Arkansas releases recommendations for school system. It's a compromise document.

Posted By on Tue, Sep 8, 2015 at 12:47 PM

click to enlarge COMPROMISE: ForwARd Arkansas releases its recommendations. - FORWARD ARKANSAS
  • COMPROMISE: ForwARd Arkansas releases its recommendations.

ForwARd Arkansas
— a collaborative effort between the Walton Family Foundation, the Winthrop Rockefeller Foundation and the state Board of Education — released a long-awaited set of recommendations for the future of Arkansas education this morning.
Here are ForwARd's recommendations.

I'll be back later with a closer look at the document, but for now I'll just note that it appears to represent a compromise between the diverse viewpoints on ForwARd's steering committee, which includes a spectrum of attitudes on charters, school choice, the role of unions, high stakes testing and other contentious issues. It includes staunch supporter of traditional public schools, such as Sen. Joyce Elliott (D-Little Rock), and charter advocates like KIPP Delta College Prep's Scott Shirey.

I can't find any mention of charter schools in the entire document, nor school choice. Nor, for that matter, does the word "equity" appear. Instead, ForwARd focuses on areas where there's likely to be more consensus among policymakers: Increased investment in pre-K, with a prioritization of low-income students without access. Making sure kids are well-fed, by expanding breakfast programs, and healthy, by improving health access to their families. Building workforce education pathways. Building governance capacity at the district level, and training and evaluating principals at the building level.

That doesn't mean the recommendations will be free of controversy. A couple jump out in particular: Moving school board election dates to coincide with general elections, and creating a "pre-academic distress" designation for schools in the bottom 5 percent of performance statewide.

"Pre-AD schools that do not follow 'binding recommendations' and do not demonstrate student achievement gains can be moved to [academic distress] classification," the report says — which could expedite their takeover by the state. However, it also acknowledges that "right now, Arkansas does not have the resources in place to support and coordinate turnaround efforts at all academically distressed schools."

Still, the most notable thing about this report is what it doesn't contain: An endorsement of charters and similar measures as the key to improving public education. ForwARD has long been viewed with suspicion by some traditional public ed advocates — especially in Little Rock — as a sort of Trojan horse for the vision of charter-and-choice-based "reform" championed by the Walton Family Foundation in places like New Orleans and around the nation. But these recommendations, in any case, aren't strictly cut from the reformist cloth.

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