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Slow the school waiver train 

The State Board of Education's controversial plan to waive the Teacher Fair Dismissal Act in the Little Rock School District (and now others under state takeover) has received a lot of attention in recent weeks. But few people are aware of a broader threat to educational standards, accountability and transparency for every public school in the state: waivers under Act 1240 of 2015.

These Act 1240 waivers are not to be confused with the actions the board may take under Act 930 for schools in academic distress; or waivers routinely granted to all charter schools and Schools of Innovation; or all kinds of other waivers the state may grant regarding teacher licensure, school consolation, etc.

Act 1240 was passed in 2015 with the intent of leveling the playing field for traditional public schools by allowing them to apply for the same waivers given to open-enrollment charter schools in their communities. Once approved, districts' waivers remain valid as long as the charter holds those same waivers, with no renewal process or results required.

To some legislators, allowing traditional public schools to seek the same waivers as charters seemed only fair. For example, rural communities face much more difficulty recruiting teachers who are certified — something charter schools don't have to do.

But, good intentions sometimes have bad unintended (or unknown) consequences. Because the Arkansas Virtual Academy operates in every district statewide, every public school district can apply for the dozens of waivers they have as well. Under Act 1240, many public schools no longer have to hire guidance counselors, teach fine arts, have a library, or follow many other standards and policies — including the Teacher Fair Dismissal Act.

Now everyone wants in on the waiver game. As of December 2018, the State Board has granted a total of 3,819 waivers to nearly all of the state's 235 school districts under Act 1240.

The State Board of Education has full authority to "grant, in whole or in part, or deny, in whole or in part" all waivers under Act 1240. But it is increasingly unclear what the State Board's rationale is for making decisions on who gets what waivers, or how we know what is working or not working. No research-based criteria are required to be used, and no evidence of effectiveness must be reported.

Some waivers may make sense for certain schools, such as not requiring dropout recovery schools to offer gifted and talented services. Some state laws may be obsolete and need to be repealed, rather than waived. But what standards, shown by research to be in the best interests of students' learning and well-being, should be non-negotiable? Dyslexia laws? Anti-bullying policies? Having a school nurse? Otherwise, why do we have standards at all?

Perhaps most concerning is that parents have no idea what services, policies or standards their child's school may no longer have to follow. The department's Coalition on Family and Community Engagement has completed a yearlong process to design ways to involve more people in public schools and decision-making, and this seems like an important place to start.

Here are the big picture questions: What is our vision for public education in Arkansas, and is this the best way to get there? Are we doing right by children and families, or just what is most expedient? These are difficult decisions with huge implications that deserve more study and public deliberation. For that reason, I recommend the state create a task force to make recommendations on how to move forward and a panel to thoroughly vet individual waiver applications and monitor their impact, much like the charter authorization panel. It should include perspectives of parents or caregivers, students, teachers and others who are directly affected by these laws. This working group also should collaborate with members of the House and Senate education committees, so these issues may be more thoughtfully considered on the legislative side.

In the meantime, you can find out what waivers schools have under Act 1240 by visiting the Arkansas Department of Education's myschoolinfo.arkansas.gov website. If you haven't been paying attention, it's a good time to start.

Ginny Blankenship, Ed.D., is education policy director at Arkansas Advocates for Children and Families.

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