The state education department, along with two major foundations, has released its recommendations to improve Arkansas schools over the long term.

The Winthrop Rockefeller Foundation and the Walton Family Foundation worked with the education department for more than a year to assess the current state of Arkansas schools and finalize recommendations for change. The partnership is called ForwARd Arkansas.

The list of recommendations include ways to generate support outside the classroom. The report recognizes that evaluating a school requires more than simply comparing test scores, because many Arkansas schools must cope with external factors like pervasive poverty.

In its survey of classroom teachers, 77 percent of teachers said that a lack of support from families and parents factored into students’ lack of academic success. Also, 23 percent of teachers said that they had students lacking in basic needs, such as regular meals.

Schools get additional state funding based on the percentage of low-income students enrolled. ForwARd Arkansas recommended changes in the formula to smooth out sharp differences in funding. For example, schools with 69 percent of low-income students get only half the bonus funding that schools get if 70 of their students are low-income.

Other recommendations, if implemented, would ease regulatory requirements with the goal of changing the mindset in school administration from emphasizing compliance to emphasizing achievement of goals.

The organization found that teachers, parents and students felt that time for classroom instruction is being curtailed in order to take standardized tests. Eliminating redundant testing would increase teaching time, according to ForwARd Arkansas.

A similar recommendation is to reduce and streamline teachers’ tasks so they can focus on instruction.

In the past 10 years the number of public school districts in Arkansas has decreased from 261 to 257, and their average enrollment has increased from 1,766 to 1,841. Significantly, the average number of students from low-income families, as indicated by their eligibility for free or reduced price meals, has increased from 54 percent to 61 percent.

Arkansas public schools are preparing more students for higher education. In the 2005-2006 school year 146,000 students enrolled in a state college or university, according to the findings of ForwARd Arkansas. Now, the number of students in higher education is 181,000.

The number of children in pre-kindergarten has risen by five percent, from 37,000 to 39,000. State expenditures as measured on a per pupil basis has declined for pre-K students by eight percent, from $6,014 to $5,514.

Per pupil spending in K-12 education has risen 3 percent. This year Arkansas has 476,000 students enrolled in public schools.

Several recommendations center around the need for more support outside the classroom, such as marketing to tell people of the value of pre-K and ensuring that all students begin the school day with a healthy breakfast.

After school programs and summer programs benefit children’s performance in the classroom.

ForwARd Arkansas recommended that schools have access to broadband Internet connections and that administrators have budget flexibility for incentive pay. Also, it suggested moving school elections from September to November, on the same date as general elections.

If you have any questions or comments about legislative issues, contact me at terry.rice@senate.ar.gov or call me at (479) 650-9712.