Oliva explains Sanders’ LEARNS proposals at University of Arkansas Office for Education Policy’s spring conference

Oliva explains Sanders’ LEARNS proposals at University of Arkansas Office for Education Policy’s spring conference

LITTLE ROCK — Arkansas’ new education secretary, Jacob Oliva, on Thursday elaborated on components of Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders’ Arkansas LEARNS plan for revamping pre-kindergarten through 12th grade education.

Speaking to about 200 educators and policymakers at the University of Arkansas Office for Education Policy’s spring conference in Little Rock, Oliva went through the governor’s proposals to raise minimum starting teacher salaries from $36,000 to $50,000; to provide extra support to struggling third grade readers; to expand early childhood education services; and to phase in a school voucher program that would provide parents access to public funding — at a greater scale than is now available — to pay for their child’s private school tuition.

Oliva spoke and took questions about those elements, as well as career and technical education and school safety, in advance of what is expected to be the governor’s all-in-one comprehensive education bill to be introduced in the coming days.

Sanders has said that LEARNS stands for literacy, empowerment, accountability, readiness, networking and safety.

The son of a Cuban immigrant father and, up to now, a public school career educator in Florida, Oliva said he has found some good practices and a good investment in education in Arkansas.

He noted that the average per-pupil expenditure is more than $12,000. That compares to about $8,000 in Florida, he said. But he also questioned whether Arkansas is getting a good return on its investment, noting that only one in three pupils is reading at or above grade level.

He said he has spent his first month in Arkansas focused in large part on making the LEARNS vision actionable and “how to implement this blueprint … so we can help move the needle and see the outcomes.”

“It’s something that I’m excited about because I believe we can get there,” he said about the LEARNS initiative, adding that he expects feedback during the process from educators like those in the audience.

“I always tell people that you can’t get a grand slam if you haven’t put anybody on base. You have to have someone on first, someone on second, someone on third. Eventually we are going to get to that grand slam . We’re starting to put people on base.”

He said the plan for one omnibus education reform act instead of breaking the plan into separate pieces of legislation is intended to push forward a birth-to-career education model and avoid having only parts of an interlocking plan approved.

Carol Fleming, president of the Arkansas Education Association — the state’s largest teacher union — and Stacey McAdoo, the state’s 2019 Teacher of the Year, questioned Oliva about whether teachers were involved in the development of Arkansas LEARNS.

Olivia responded that Sanders had worked for up to two years visiting classrooms and holding community forums before making the proposal.

Fleming said later Thursday that “it is unfortunate that the voice of our members has not been included in the development of this plan.”

“We would appreciate an opportunity to engage in a conversation with the Governor and Secretary regarding how we can work together to ensure all students in Arkansas’s public schools receive an education that prepares them to live and succeed in a diverse and interdependent world,” she said .

One provision of Arkansas LEARNS is to expand early childhood education programs in the state, Oliva said. That is an effort to make programs — which are now under different agencies and available in “islands” in the state — accessible to more families and bring an end to the state’s early childhood “deserts,” so that every family that wants an the early learning program has access to one, he said.

Early childhood programs can help ensure that children starting kindergarten are ready to learn. Those foundational skills lead to consistent learning in the early elementary grades and into the upper grades.

Oliva said that for third graders who are struggling readers, the move to the fourth grade is a critical decision.

“We need to look at factors before we move students through where they will continue to struggle without safety nets,” he said, adding that retaining those third graders for the sake of retaining them is not an effective practice — especially if they have been retained earlier or are not native English speakers or are special education students.

But requirements will be put in place for the struggling third grade readers to make sure there are interventions — such as a longer block of time for reading instruction — to aid those students in filling in their gaps, he said.

The Arkansas LEARNS plan calls for raising the minimum salary for beginning teachers to $50,000, up from the current $36,000.

Oliva said that it would be a historic increase, but he also said there are details to be ironed out. The intent, he said, is for districts to continue to receive traditional school district revenue that could be used to pay more veteran teachers. That money is still there, he said.

The money for raising the minimum teacher salary will be new, additional money, he said.

“This will not impact the local school district’s budget that they are expecting and are already planning to receive through the Legislature,” he said.

He also said there could be an additional $2,000 for each teacher already above the $50,000. There will be opportunities for teachers to get an additional $10,000 for reasons such as student performance or participating in a mentoring program.

The local districts will have the responsibility for decisions on structuring salary schedules to recruit, reward and retain teachers in their communities, including those with advanced degrees, he said.

The average teacher salary in Arkansas was $53,416 for non-federally licensed classroom teachers in 2021-22. For all non-federally licensed educators — including principals and superintendents — the average salary was $56,181.

The planning for a $50,000 minimum salary comes at a time when there is discussion at the federal level of $60,000 starting salaries for teachers.

The Education Week national weekly newspaper reported earlier this week that US Sen. Bernie Sanders will soon introduce legislation to pay teachers a minimum of $60,000 a year, complementing similar efforts in the US House of Representatives.

Sanders said his legislation would triple Title I funding for low-income schools and increase wages for veteran teachers after they’ve been working on the job for 10, 20 or 30 years, in addition to setting the salary floor, Education Week reported.

Audience members on Thursday questioned Oliva about the availability of affordable transportation for students who might choose to attend schools outside their home school systems and about the role of higher education and whether there are more cost-efficient routes to becoming a state licensed teacher.

Oliva said there could be innovation grants for the transportation issue and a variety of loan forgiveness programs for teacher candidates, as well as streamlining the teacher preparation process. He said he was personally partial to traditional teacher preparation programs and cringes when teachers tell their own children not to be teachers.